Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger

This is one of Plutarch’s longer biographies of eminent Romans, at 73 ‘chapters’ or sections.

Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Younger (95 to 46 BC), was a conservative Roman senator in the period of the late Republic. He made a reputation for being a stern, inflexible defender of the strictest interpretation of traditional ‘Roman’ values and a literalistic interpretation of the constitution. As such he was in effect a defender of the optimates party of traditional aristocrats and the senate as a body, against the growing power and political lobbying of the populares party, represented by others in the 80s and 70s but during the 60s and 50s increasingly represented by Julius Caesar. Cato saw Caesar as an over-ambitious autocrat who sought to tear up the traditional constitution and make himself tyrant and king, so he bitterly opposed him at every opportunity.

Ironically, the net effect of his stern speechifying and high-minded opposition to Caesar helped to create the impassible divide which arose between Caesar and Pompey (who he defected to and served during the civil war) and precipitated the civil war which overthrew the republic that he loved. When compromise was required, Cato offered inflexible opposition.

His suicide in north Africa, where he was one of Pompey’s governors, after Caesar had effectively won the province in 46 BC, was, in my opinion, not a noble end to a noble life but epitomised the political cul-de-sac he’d painted himself into. Compromise and mutual respect are the basic requisites for a functioning democracy.

The life

(1) Marcus Porcius Cato or Cato the Younger was a great-grandson of Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Censor, Cato the Elder and Cato the Wise (234 to 149). The Elder was a Roman soldier, senator, and historian known for his conservatism and opposition to Hellenization, who was the first to write history in Latin with his Origines, a now lost work on the history of Rome.

Unusually Plutarch gives us something of Cato’s boyhood. Both his parents died leaving him, his sister and brother orphans. They were brought up by a maternal uncle. People noticed he was inflexible, harsh, not given to laughter though occasionally he smiled. He was a slow but steady learner, and Plutarch favours us with some 2,000 year old theory of education (based, apparently, on Aristotle).

(2) When he was 4 the Social War broke out and Pompaedius Silo, a representative of the rebels, visited Cato’s guardian’s house and humorously asked the children for their support. The others childishly agreed but Cato stared inflexibly silently in front of him, even when the visitor held him out the window as if to drop him. He took boyhood games very seriously.

(3) The dictator Sulla liked Cato and his half brother for their father’s sake and Cato’s tutor Sarpedon often took him to visit, till one day the 14-year-old asked why there were so many cries of torture and severed heads (!) carried from Sulla’s house and when his tutor explained everyone was too frightened to intervene, Cato angrily asked for a sword and said he’d rid his country of this scourge.

Cato’s devout attachment to his brother Caepio.

(4) He was made a priest of Apollo and moved out of his guardian’s house. He tried to put into practice Stoic philosophy and lived very plainly. He was a close companion of Antipater the Tyrian, a Stoic philosopher. He believed in a form of justice which was rigid and uncompromising.

(5) When the tribunes wanted to make changes to the Basilica Porcia which his famous ancestor had constructed, Cato was reluctantly drawn into defending it and opposing the move. Everyone commented on the stern maturity of his speech.

He took vigorous exercise, refused to ride a horse or be carried in a chair, exercised in cold or heat. Spartan.

(6) He was surprisingly unabstemious, though, and would stay up through the night, drinking and arguing with philosophers. He dressed so deliberately unostentatiously that it drew attention. When he came into an inheritance he shared it liberally with friends.

(7) He became betrothed to a woman named Lepida who had been dropped by Metellus Scipio but then Metellus changed his mind and wooed and won her which made Cato so furious he eased his mind by writing scathing verses against Metellus. Then he married Atilia, a daughter of Serranus.

(8) During the war of Spartacus (73 to 71 BC) Cato volunteered to serve since his brother was a military tribune. He displayed good discipline, self-control, courage in all emergencies and sagacity. When the commander, Lucius Gellius Publicola (consul in 72) awarded him honours Cato turned them down, saying he’d done nothing special. So he acquired a reputation as being clever and brave, but odd.

(9) In 67 he was appointed military tribune and sent to Macedonia, to serve under Rubrius the praetor. It’s fascinating to learn that he travelled to this post with fifteen slaves, two freedmen, and four friends. He was assigned a legion and won over the men by his unpretentious willingness to join in with all the tasks.

(10) Cato hears a Stoic philosopher named Athenodorus Cordylion, was living at Pergamum, he travelled there to persuade him to return with him to the army camp, which the latter did. Cato was more proud of this achievement than any military conquest.

(11) Cato’s brother fell sick at Aenus in Thrace. He made his way there as quickly as possible but his brother died before he arrived. People were surprised at his excess of grief and the huge amount he spent on the funeral rites, ‘not observing how much tenderness and affection was mingled with the man’s inflexibility and firmness against pleasures, fears, and shameless entreaties.’ In other words, Plutarch likes Cato.

(12) When he completed his military service the men saw Cato off with tears and embraces, which was unusual, On his journey through Asia he was very humble about his entrance to towns, didn’t do it with grand display and intimidate the local magistrates (which, by implication, was the norm).

(13) Plutarch tells the genuinely funny story of Cato entering Antioch in Syria to find a reception of young men in military cloaks or gala gowns and imagining it was for him. But when the city master of ceremonies stepped forward and greeted him it was to ask when Demetrius would be arriving – all this pomp was for him. Even funnier, Demeterius had at one stage been a slave of Pompey’s but Pompey was so in the ascendent that an ex-slave of his drew more of a grand welcome than Cato. Cato’s friends laughed about this all the way to their inn.

(14) When Cato arrived in Ephesus Pompey, who was there, made a big point of going to meet and greet him by hand, and praising his virtue to his face and behind it. But this was all in self interest, for Pompey never attached Cato to his entourage as he did other young men. Anyway, as a result of Pompey’s favour, the towns he subsequently passed through made a special effort to give him honours, though he asked his friends to ensure he didn’t fulfil the prediction of his friend Curio, that he would return from Asia more tamed.

(15) Deiotarus the Galatian repeatedly sends him lavish presents but Cato sends them back. Taking ship for Brundisium, his friends advise the ashes of Caepio should travel by another ship but Cato insisted they go in the same boat as him even though they turned out to have a difficult crossing.

(16) Back in Rome he is elected quaestor in 65 BC though not before making a careful study of the full constitutional roles and responsibilities of the office. Once instated he insisted on utter rectitude and obedience to the rule from his many clerks, who were used to pulling the wool over the eyes of new young officials. Cato sacked a leading clerk for embezzlement which led to a protracted law case.

(17) By his thoroughness Cato raised the office of quaestor to almost eclipse the consulship in dignity. He:

  1. made sure all debts to the public treasury were immediately called in, so that he could then make all the disbursements owed
  2. he weeded out false claims and decrees
  3. the assassins who murdered people on Sulla’s notorious proscription lists for money, and were widely loathed, he called to account, demanded the money back, upbraided them for their filthy acts, at which point many of them were arraigned for murder: for many people this closed the door on the shameful time of Sulla’s dictatorship (82 to 78 BC)

(18) He got to work early and left late. He set the state treasury on its feet. He attended the senate and popular assemblies to make sure slack politicians didn’t make promises of money they couldn’t keep. All in all he showed that the state treasury could be run honourably.

On the last day of office he was being accompanied home by a grateful crowd, when he heard that his boyhood friend Marcellus was trying to register a crooked remission of moneys so Cato turned right round, marched back to the treasury and, in Marcellus’s sight, expunged the application from the tablets, then took Marcellus home with home for dinner. Nothing personal, just inflexible application of the rules.

(19) Having held the quaestorship, Cato is automatically enrolled in the senate. Here he shows the same inflexible devotion to duty, arriving first, leaving last, and making sure he reads all notes and briefing papers, keeping across all details of all policies. Unlike many who drifted into it by accident, Cato

chose a public career as the proper task for a good man, and thought that he ought to be more attentive to the common interests than the bee to its honey. And so he was careful to have the affairs of the provinces and decrees and trials and the most important measures sent to him by his connections and friends in every place.

He soon became a byword for lecturing sternness and honesty. His name began to be of proverbial weight. Plutarch gives examples.

(20) When the time came to vote for tribunes despite his friends urging him to stand, Cato decided against and set off for one of his country estates to study philosophy. But on the way they encountered the entourage of Metellus Nepos on their way into town so Metellus could stand as tribune. At which Cato ordered his people to about turn and hastened back to Rome to contest the tribuneship in order to preserve the freedoms of the state.

(21) When he stood for the tribuneship many thought that, rather than seeking advantages for himself, he was conferring a gift on the role. In 63 he was elected one of the ten tribunes. He promptly lived up to his reputation for rectitude by prosecuting the consults elected that year to serve in the following years, Silanus and Murena, for bribery. It was the custom for the accused to hire a man to tail the prosecutor everywhere to see who he was talking to and what materials he was gathering. Murena’s hired man was soon impressed by Cato’s rectitude and eventually, if he asked Cato whether he was going about business for the trial that day, if Cato said no, he took his word and didn’t tail him.

Cicero was consul in 63 and defended Murena from Cato’s prosecution and got him off but it didn’t affect his respect for Cato’s honesty and he often consulted him, for:

in the tribunal and in the senate he was severe and terrible in his defence of justice, but afterwards his manner towards all men was benevolent and kindly.

(22) Two chapters on the Catiline conspiracy. Plutarch skips over all the details, to the debate about what to do with the conspirators Cicero has captured in the city. Plutarch focuses on Caesar’s speech advocating leniency for the conspirators i.e. that they be sent to various cities under house arrest until the conspiracy was completely quenched. Plutarch really comes out as anti-Caesar with these remarks:

Caesar now rose, and since he was a power­ful speaker and wished to increase every change and commotion in the state as so much stuff for his own designs, rather than to allow them to be quenched, he urged many persuasive and humane arguments.

That’s not how it comes over when you read Sallust’s reconstruction of Caesar’s speech in his account of the Catiline Conspiracy, which is sober and responsible. It also chimes with his lifelong practice of clemency and forgiveness first.

(23) But what Plutarch wants to get to is how many of the senate were swayed by Caesar until Cato stood up to speak and tore into Caesar as himself a traitor supporting traitors:

Caesar, he said, under a popular pretext and with humane words, was trying to subvert the state; he was seeking to frighten the senate in a case where he himself had much to fear; and he might be well content if he should come off guiltless of what had been done and free from suspicion, since he was so openly and recklessly trying to rescue the common enemies, while for his country, which had been on the brink of ruin, and was so good and great, he confessed that he had no pity; and yet for men who ought not to have lived or been born even, he was shedding tears and lamenting, although by their deaths they would free the state from great slaughter and perils.

So ferocious and impassioned that the senate voted overwhelmingly for immediate execution and Cicero led them away to the Roman prison and had them garrotted there and then. A rash impetuous act which would come back to haunt him in later years (when he was threatened with prosecution for having murdered these men without due legal process and so was terrified into going into exile in 58 BC).

Plutarch gives us an interesting little piece of social history by telling us that this was the only speech of Cato’s to have been recorded, and this is because Cicero was responsible for instituting the new practice of having a number of secretaries skilled at shorthand to record senate procedures. (Which is the central fact in Robert Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero.)

(24) Another quite funny anecdote. In the middle of Cato’s furious tirade against Caesar he observed a messenger come into the senate and hand Caesar a note, at which point he thunderously pointed this out to the senate and claimed it had something to do with the conspiracy, demanding he read it out. Caesar handed it over to Cato who read it and realised it was an erotic message from none other than his own sister, Servilia, to Caesar, who she was in love with (though he was married). Cato flung it back at Caesar. This is a lovely moment.

Plutarch goes on to state that Cato had bad luck with ‘his’ women: one sister gained a bad reputation for her carryings-on with Caesar, the other thrown out of her husband Lucullus’s house for infidelity, and his own wife Atilia ‘put away’ because of her ‘unseemly behaviour’. So Cato marries a daughter of Philippus, Marcia.

(25) The strange case of Quintus Hortensius, a man of splendid reputation and excellent character, who tries to persuade Cato to farm out to him his daughter who just happens to be married to another man, Bibulus. Why? To bind their families together and increase wise and virtuous offspring. Cato politely refuses. Things then become garbled as Plutarch states that Hortensius then asked for Cato’s wife in marriage. The fact that Cato agreed and that her father agreed, indicate that he had, or was about to, divorce her. Lots of divorces and remarriages among the Roman aristocracy.

(26) So Lentulus and the other conspirators are executed but Plutarch says Caesar continues to stir up unrest among the city’s poor and describes Cato as being wise and good in passing a law to expand the free grain distribution to the poor and landless.

It is 62 BC and Pompey is en route back to Italy from his triumphs in the East. Metellus has taken up the tribuneship and proposes a law asking Pompey to hurry back and protect the city. Cato at first politely declines and asks Metellus to reconsider. But when the latter takes advantage of his meekness, becomes angry and shouty, leaving witnesses with the sense that they’re both bonkers.

(27) The night before the vote the forum was filled with armed strangers and gladiators and servants with strong support from Caesar, who was praetor. That night Cato bravely walks with his friend Minucius Thermus through the throng of armed men to the temple of Castor and Pollux and pushes through the armed gladiators to eventually plonk himself in a chair between Caesar and Metellus who were conversing.

(28) The proposed law is read out but Cato snatches the paper out of Metellus’s hand. When Metellus continues to recite it from memory, Cato puts his hand over his mouth. So Metellus ordered the men at arms to come to his aid and some of the people pelted Cato with sticks and stones. Not a model democracy, was it?

(29) This brawl goes on for some time with Metellus attempting to read his law and some of the people threatening him. In the event Metellus fled from the people to the forum, made a long speech against Cato, and then fled the city altogether heading towards Pompey.

Switching subject, Lucullus had returned triumphant from the East in 66 but had been forced to wait for a triumph by the opposition of Caius Memmius who wanted to suck up to Pompey. Cato opposed this, partly because Lucullus was married to Cato’s sister. The importance of these marriage and family alliances and allegiances is difficult to capture but was a key element in Roman politics.

(30) Pompey as he approached Rome sent asking the senate if they could postpone the consular elections so he could canvass for Piso in person. The senate was inclined to agree but Cato vehemently disapproved. Seeing he was going to be an obstacle, Pompey then sent a message asking for the hand in marriage of Cato’s daughter for him and the other daughter for his son. When they heard this the women in question were delighted to make such high matches but Cato immediately refused and sent back that he wasn’t to be bought with marriage alliances. Plutarch, for once, is critical, and makes the kind of point I’ve made, which is that Cato’s intransigence brought about the very thing he sought to avoid:

However, if we are to judge by the results, it would seem that Cato was wholly wrong in not accepting the marriage connection, instead of allowing Pompey to turn to Caesar and contract a marriage which united the power of the two men, nearly overthrew the Roman state, and destroyed the constitution. None of these things perhaps would have happened, had not Cato been so afraid of the slight transgressions of Pompey as to allow him to commit the greatest of all, and add his power to that of another.

(31) Furthermore, Cato blocks Pompey’s wishes for a law distributing land to his veteran soldiers, and then blocks Caesar’s wish, on returning from Spain, to canvass for the consulship whilst remaining outside the city pending a triumph. Cato denied him this, too, by talking for an entire day and so talking the time out. But the effect of this scrupulous defence of principle was to drive Caesar and Pompey together and both to support the unscrupulous agitator Clodius. Again, by his scruples he brought about the thing he most opposed. Lucullus and Cicero are of h is party, but the new triumvirate outpowers them and Caesar is elected consul for 59.

(32) Plutarch describes the street violence encouraged by Cato’s opponents. With the help of this rioting Pompey’s land redistribution bill is passed after all along with an unusual clause compelling all senators to take an oath to uphold it. Inevitably, Cato refused to do this until persuaded into it by Cicero who said it was vanity to hold out against the general will, and that he needed Cato in Rome rather than in exile.

(33) Caesar introduces a law to divide almost all of Campania among the poor and needy. Of course Cato objects and so Caesar has him dragged off to prison. Plutarch alleges that it is by such shameless laws that Caesar curried favour with the people and so got himself awarded governorship of Gaul for five years despite Cato warning the people that they themselves were creating a tyrant.

(34) Caesar’s creature, Clodius, gets Cato sent against his will as governor to Cyprus and Ptolemy of Egypt, very obviously to get him out of the way to the clique can pursue their aims unobstructed. Clodius is particularly hot to hound Cicero out of Rome, something he couldn’t achieve if Cato were there.

(35) En route to the East Cato wrote to Cicero whose enemies were trying to get him banished to submit to the mood of the times. King Ptolemy of Egypt comes to see him and finds Cato full of wisdom, not least in his advice to have nothing to do with the rapacious crooks at Rome (Pompey and Caesar) and return to Alexandria and be reconciled with his people. Ptolemy in fact continues onto Rome but Plutarch has him (improbably) at the door of the first magistrate he visits groaning at his own weakness.

(36) Confusingly (for me at any rate) Plutarch then talks about an apparently different Ptolemy, ‘the Ptolemy in Cyprus’, who poisons himself. Cato hears this at Byzantium where he is supervising a peace (?) before he goes on to Cyprus and organises the auctioning of the king’s belongings. He insists on handling every aspect of this himself and so alienates a lot of his friends.

(37) An extended description of the falling out between Cato and his friend Munatius, who feels himself slighted. In the end they are reconciled with kindness and tears. This is a good example of an anecdote or passage which has nothing to do with politics or history, as such, but demonstrates Plutarch’s primary focus which is an interest in ‘the perception and manifestation of character‘.

(38) When Cato returned from the East he meant to present immaculate accounts of the enormous sum of money he was bringing back (7,000 talents of silver), but his account books were lost in unfortunate accidents which vexed him because he had wanted to display them as models and templates.

(39) Cato arrived back from the East in 56 BC and all Rome turned out to meet him, the senate and the people. Characteristically, Cato sailed right past his reception committee and to the docks, which irritated many. But he made up for it when he paraded the wealth he’d brought back through the forum, and he was awarded an extraordinary praetorship.

(40) In 57 BC Cicero had returned to Rome after an exile of 16 months. He promptly acted controversially by having all the records of Clodius’s acts as tribune destroyed, claiming that Clodius had been improperly elected through bribery. Surprisingly, Cato contradicted Cicero’s speech, saying it had not been illegal for Clodius to move from the patrician to the plebeian class, and arguing that if Clodius’s acts were to be erased so should his, Cato’s, in the East because his appointment was made by Clodius. This public disagreement caused Cicero to break off friendship with Cato for a long time.

(41) Plutarch briskly skips over the conference of the triumvirate at Luca. He calls it:

a conspiracy for the division of the supreme power and the abolition of the constitution.

It was where they agreed to make Crassus and Pompey consuls for the following year. Lucius Domitius is encouraged to put himself forward as a rival but Pompey’s thugs attack him one early morning as he is walking in the Campus Martius, killing a torchbearer and injuring others, including Cato who was with him.

(42) So Pompey and Crassus were voted consuls for 55 BC. But Cato didn’t give up his opposition and stood for praetor so he could oppose them from an official position. Plutarch describes the bribery and tricks Pompey used to prevent Cato’s election but he then gives a big address to the people expressing his fears about a tyranny and is followed home by a big crowd (as so often happens in these anecdotes).

(43) Caius Trebonius proposes a law assigning provinces to the consuls which Cato vehemently opposes, speaking against it at such length from the rostrum that he is dragged from it by his opponents, a fight breaks out, some people are killed (!). When another law is promulgated giving Caesar his command in Gaul, Cato makes a speech directly addressing Pompey saying he is unwittingly creating a burden which will crush him. But Pompey ignored him, trusting in his own power and fortune.

(44) Cato is elected praetor for 54 and tries to introduce a law eradicating bribery. This makes him unpopular with the mob who like being bribed, and he is pelted and jostled in the forum until he claws his way onto the rostrum and makes a principled speech which reduces the mob to silence. He institutes a bill whereby the candidates for election all give a deposit to Cato who then monitors the election and anybody caught cheating forfeits their deposit.

(45) His honesty shames the great men of the state who league against him. Clodius is back in Pompey’s orbit and regularly attacks him for corruption etc. Cato replies that he brought more treasure back from Cyprus by honest means than Pompey did from ravaging the East. Cato said Pompey had no right lending his legions to Caesar in Gaul without consulting the state as if they were his private possessions. And warns that he remains near Rome (i.e. didn’t take his governorship of Spain) in order to manage factions at elections as they were games.

(46) Cato ensures his friend Marcus Favonius is fairly elected aedile, the post which supervised games and entertainments, but Cato actually carries out a lot of the duties. People are amused by the way Cato rewards the players with humble gifts of food and fruit rather than elaborate gold and luxuries. He thought that to sport and entertainment, light and gladsome arrangements were appropriate.

(47) In 52 BC the street fighting of Clodius and Titus Annius Milo’s gangs and others became so extreme that elections to the magistracies were suspended. Opinion crystallised that Pompey needed to intervene with his army to restore order. When this was proposed in the senate to everyone’s surprise Cato supported it, with the simple argument that any government is better than no government at all.

(48) And so Pompey is appointed sole consul, floods the streets with soldiers, puts an end to political violence and safeguards the elections. A benign military dictatorship. He asks Cato to be his adviser. Cato, typically, says when he criticised him before it wasn’t out of personal malice and if he helps him now it won’t be to truckle favour, in both cases it is for the good of the state. He advises him against the retrospective prosecution of officials for winning their places by bribery, arguing that a) it will be difficult to know where to stop and b) it was unfair to punish people according to a law which didn’t exist when they acted.

Cato’s difficulty as a juror in trials where he couldn’t be suborned or bought and so was an unpredictable quality to both prosecution and defence.

(49) All this time Caesar is using the money and power he accumulates in Gaul to buy friends and influence in Rome. Finally it dawns on Pompey that he is becoming a threat. Cato decides to stand for the consulship to try and limit’s Caesar’s ambitions. Cato proposes a law that candidates must canvas in person, and not through middle men who distribute money and bribes, which alienates the populace who like money and bribes. Refusing to employ the common practices of a consul ingratiating himself with the people, he is not elected.

(50) Cicero upbraids Cato because, when the times required a man like him in power, he refused to change his principles and humble himself to stand for election, and so lost the opportunity to help the state. How much should a man compromise his principles in order to win power to enact his principles?

(51) It is reported in Rome that Caesar attacked Germans in Gaul during a truce, and massacred them. A great public celebration is called but Cato declares Caesar should be handed over to the Germans whose trust he breached. Caesar wrote a letter to be read out in the senate justifying his actions and execrating Cato at length. But this only gives Cato an opportunity to deliver a long, carefully evidenced indictment of Caesar’s behaviour and ambitions, so that the latter’s friends regret reading out the letter in the first place.

The senate consider it is well to find a replacement for Caesar but Caesar replies that he’ll only do that if Pompey lays down his arms. At which Cato points out that what he prophesied was coming to pass, that overmighty leaders with private armies were dictating to the senate rather than following the instructions of the government.

“Those things are come to pass which I foretold to you, and the man is at last resorting to open compulsion, using the forces which he got by deceiving and cheating the state.”

(52) Plutarch skips over the entire complex web of events which led to the escalating crisis between Caesar and Pompey, the ultimatums, the attempts at mediation, and skips suddenly to Caesar having crossed the Rubicon and occupied the town of Ariminum (January 49 BC). Cato says ‘I told you so’ and recommends that Pompey be supported in opposing Caesar. Pompey acknowledges that Cato was a prophet but fails to raise the armies he told everyone it would be so easy to raise and decides to flee Rome.

At this perilous moment Plutarch pauses to tell us about Cato’s private life, namely that he remarried the Marcia he had divorced and who subsequently married Hortensius, who had died, leaving her free again. Apparently Caesar made much of this in the virulent diatribe he wrote against Cato, claiming the latter in effect farmed his wife out to the wealthy Hortensius so that, when the latter died, he could remarry his wife and come into a fortune. Thus the Roman aristocracy, bickering among themselves.

(53) Cato opts to support Pompey and is sent as Pompeian governor to Sicily. But when he hears that Pompey has fled Italy for Greece he makes the droll remark that:

there was much inconsistency and obscurity in the divine government, since Pompey had been invincible while his course was neither sound nor just, but now, when he wished to save his country and was fighting in defence of liberty, he had been deserted by his good fortune.

As to being governor of Sicily, when a Caesarian force arrives under Asinius Pollio, Cato says he doesn’t want to lay waste the province with war and so sails to join Pompey in Greece. Here he made good policy suggestions, namely not to plunder a city that was subject to Rome, and not to put a Roman to death except on the field of battle. This brought to the party of Pompey a good repute, and induced many to join it.

(54) Cato is sent to Asia, whither he is accompanied by his sister, much reformed from her dissolute behaviour, and where he persuades Rhodes to declare for Pompey. At first Pompey is inclined to give Cato command of his huge fleet of some 500 ships, until it is pointed out to him that Pompey is not devoted to his cause but to Rome and that, the minute Caesar was defeated, Cato would be insisting that Pompey surrender his command, too. So he appoints Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus admiral.

But Cato proves an asset. When all the generals give speeches to the men before a big battle at Dyrrhachium, the soldiers listen lethargically, but when Cato addresses them and invokes all the ideas of patriotism and bravery and tells them the gods are watching he rouses them to a true fighting spirit and Pompey wins the battle.

(55) When Pompey marched his army into Thessaly, he left Cato in command of the supplies and men he left at Dyrrhachium, along with fifteen cohorts. After Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalus, Cato offered command of the fleet to Cicero, who refused, saying he wanted to return to Italy. But Pompey’s son, Gnaeus Pompey, was violently against anyone who deserted the cause, and might have killed Cicero had he left. Cato talked him into remaining and so probably saved his life (well, for the time being; nobody’s life is really saved, not forever).

(56) Guessing that Pompey had headed south Cato sailed to Africa with his fleet. In Libya he met Sextus Pompeius and learned of his father’s murder. Ashamed of abandoning men, Cato found himself taking command of the remaining Pompeian forces (reminding us how close, how very close, the military world was to all the Roman ‘statesman’ we read about. It was a totally militarised politics.)

He learns of other Pompeian forces under Juba the king and Attius Varus and resolves to join them. Cato shows all the signs of mourning (for Pompey) walks rather than rides a horse, only lies down to sleep, east sitting down.

(57) Cato tries to resolve the squabbles between the Roman commanders Scipio and Varus, and King Juba of the Numidians. He is punctilious about not taking command because he is only a pro-praetor whereas Scipio is a pro-consul.

(58) Scipio was going to give in to Juba’s request to have the city of Utica razed to the ground and it inhabitants slaughtered but Cato vehemently objected, got himself appointed governor of it to ensure its loyalty to the Pompeians. With his usual administrative flair he turns it into a storehouse for Pompeian forces in Africa. But his advice to Scipio, to play a waiting game and let Caesar tired himself in Africa, is ignored. Scipio mocks Cato locked up safe and secure in a walled city but when Cato offers to take his army to Italy to decoy Caesar back there, Scipio mocks this too. And Cato begins to realise Scipio is a rash and unreliable leader and would probably make himself tyrant, given half a chance.

All of which is grimly confirmed when messengers bring news of the Battle of Thapsus 6 April 46 in which Caesar demolished the much bigger army of Juba and Scipio and Varus.

(59) That night the population panics but Cato walks among them calming their fears. When day comes he assembles the 300 or so Roman citizens in the town, businessmen and moneylenders with the senators who had taken refuge there. (It is typical of the kind of insights you glean from these texts, that Plutarch calls these people Cat’s ‘senate’. Did this mean every town and city in a Roman province had its own ‘senate’ made up of the richest Roman inhabitants?)

Cato then makes a speech advising everyone to stay put and not flee, severally. And says it’s their free choice whether to switch to Caesar but he would admire and praise them more if they if they remained true to what he saw not as ‘Pompey’s side’ but the cause of Rome and its laws and traditions.

(60) Cato’s speech inspires the people to elect him their leader and use their goods and weapons and lives as he thinks fit. Someone suggests a law freeing all the slaves but Cato, with typically legalistic precision, says such a law would be illegal, but individual slave-owners can free them and all of military age will be accepted into the army. Both Juba (with the remnants of his army) and Scipio (with his fleet) send messages saying they await Cato’s decision what to do next.

(61) The senators manumitted their slaves but the leading 300 citizens were conflicted and Plutarch gives a paragraph of their thinking and reasoning why they want to hand themselves over to Caesar.

(62) Given these divisions Cato sends back to Juba and Scipio telling them not to come. But when a large number of allied cavalry arrive, Cato and the senators beg them to come inside the city and stay with them.

(63) The horsemen say they will but only if Cato drives out the ‘barbarian’ ‘fickle’ Phoenician people of Utica. Cato says he will consider it. When he returns inside the city the 300 have become bolder and complaining why they are being forced to oppose the undefeatable Caesar, and muttering more and more about the senators being responsible for their danger.

Then he hears that the cavalry force is riding away so grabs a horse and rides after them. They say come with us and be saved. Cato bursts into tears and begs them to come back to Utica if only for one day, to protect the senators.

(64) The cavalry take up positions inside Utica which is now really divided between the senators, who are with Cato, and the 300 businessmen, who want to surrender. Cato has decided to kill himself, since every future he can foresee is one of tyrants in which his beloved Rome is ruined. But he delays in his bid to reconcile the 300 and the senators. The 300 want to send messages to Caesar surrendering and offer prayers. Cato says by all means send messages but prayers are for the defeated and he is not defeated; he is triumphant in spirit, it is Caesar who has admitted his treacherous intent.

(65) As Caesar’s forces approach, Cato tries to keep order in the city, to ensure the senators’ safety, and to prevent the cavalry looting and killing. He tries to unite the people into accepting the treacherous 300, so they stand as one city. He helps those who want to flee embark from the harbour.

(66) Lucius Caesar offers to go as envoy to the great Julius and fall down at his feet to beg for Cato. But Cato says, No, this is his job. Instead they discuss how to save the 300. Then he gathers his son and family round him and takes a bath.

(67) He hosts a big dinner party after which literary and philosophical subjects are discussed, including the so-called ‘paradoxes of the Stoics’ which include the maxim that all good men are free and that the bad are all slaves. A peripatetic philosopher begins to object to this but Cato wades in and argues at length and fiercely for its truth. Only the good, like him, are truly free. The bad, like Caesar, despite all appearances to the contrary, are slaves. From his tone and words everyone realised he intended to kill himself.

(68) He walks with family and friends, embraces them all, and retired to his bedroom. Here he reads Plato on the soul but on glancing around discovers his sword is gone, His son removed it. He orders his slaves to find it, gets angry and hits them when they can’t, eventually his son arrives in floods of tears and Cato remonstrates with him for taking away his means of defence.

(69) He is left with just two friends and asks if they have been set there to talk him out of killing himself.

(70) These two friends burst into tears and leave. Then the sword is sent in, carried by a child. He sets it aside and rereads the Plato twice, then falls asleep. Then wakes up and sends an official, Butas, to check everyone who wanted has safely departed the harbour. His doctor he has bandage the hand he damaged punching his servant. Butas tells him most of those who wanted to depart have left but a strong wind and storm are blowing up.

When Butas has left Cato tries to kill himself but makes a weak blow with the sword and falls to the floor. His slaves and son rush in, weeping. The doctor tries to push his intestines which are spilling out of his abdomen back in, but when he realises what is going on, Cato pushes him away, tears at his own intestines and at the wound to make it bigger, and so dies. How disgusting. How undignified.

So, as with Pompey and Caesar and Cicero, Plutarch really lays on the domestic details in order to work his death scene up into one designed to spark strong emotion. Craftsmanlike, painterly.

(71) In an improbable show of unity which one suspects owes more to Plutarch’s partiality, he has the 300 and the townspeople all uniting in their love of Cato and declaring him the one free man. They dress his body richly, bury it near the sea and erect a statue which stands to this day.

(72) Soon after Caesar arrives at Utica, learns of Cato’s death and utters the famous words:

“”O Cato, I begrudge thee thy death; for thou didst begrudge me the sparing of thy life.”

But Cato didn’t want to live if it meant living at the whim of (people he thought) tyrants and of simultaneously having the sparing of his life turned into a great credit to Caesar’s reputation. No. He only really had one course of action.

(73) Coda about Cato’s son, who Caesar spared, as was his habit. Initially he became a figure of fun by having an affair with the wife of an eastern king, and Plutarch quotes some maxims or aphorisms made about him. But he ended well, dying fighting at Philippi against Caesar and Antony. His daughter married that Brutus who assassinated Caesar, was part of the conspiracy and died in the cause. And this expired the line of Cato.

Thoughts

Choosing sides

At various points in the reading you realise how difficult it is to know what to do in a society which is falling to bits. It wasn’t really a question of choosing sides because not until the final breakout of civil war were there two sides to pick from. Cato’s career demonstrates that the uttermost probity and honesty only take you so far. In the real world compromise has to be made on a host of occasions. A big example is when Cato surprised everyone by backing Pompey as sole consul in 52. Any government is better than anarchy.

But that, for me, raises the central issue. There are lots of interpretations, lots of scholarly reasons given, for the collapse of the republic, but in my opinion the fundamental one was the collapse of political discourse into street violence. Over the preceding generations it had become acceptable to physically attack your opponents and their supporters in the street. The problem was how to contain this violence, how to contain it within the realm of politics and stop it spreading over into the realm of violence.

Philosophy

Much is made of Cato’s devotion to philosophy, but it can be said of him as of so many other people who study the subject, that in the end they choose the school and philosophy which suits their temperament, which they were always going to choose. He was harsh and inflexible and sought to display little or no feeling, so he was drawn to stoicism which “teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.”

Far from teaching ‘truth’, philosophy is like a huge breakfast buffet where you can tuck into whatever you fancy and mix and match at will, change your opinions, decide you fancy a fry-up instead of pastries. Or, to quote Bob Dylan, “People do what they want to and then think up reasons to justify their actions later.”


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The life of Julius Caesar by Suetonius (120 AD)

Suetonius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Life of Caesar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In all this time he suffered only three setbacks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(44) Caesar’s grand public schemes involved:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angels, apparently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparisons

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

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


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Byzantium: The Apogee by John Julius Norwich (1991)

By the tenth century to be a eunuch was, for a promising youth about to enter the imperial service, a virtual guarantee of advancement; many an ambitious parent would have a younger son castrated as a matter of course. (p.130)

This is a timeline of Byzantine emperors between 802 and 1081, based on John Julius Norwich’s book, Byzantium: The Apogee (1991).

This book is volume two in his three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, and the first thing you notice is that although the book is a similar length to the first one (389 pages to volume one’s 408), it covers only half the number of years (478 years in volume one, 281 in this volume). The reason is that there are more sources for this later period, and the sources are more complete, and so our histories can be more detailed. Indeed,

thanks to such writers as Liudprand of cremona, St Theophanes and his continuators, George Cedrenus, John Scylitzes and above all the odious but ever-fascinating Michael Psellus, we can enjoy an incomparably nore colourful picture of life in the Imperial Palace of Byzantium in the early middle ages thatn we can of any other court in Europe. (p.xxii)

Permanently embattled

By the time this book starts the Byzantine Empire feels permanently embattled. Muslim armies were constantly attacking in what we now call Syria and Palestine, in Anatolia, but also in faraway Sicily, even invading the Italian Peninsula. The Muslims had conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula and a new breed of Arab pirates or ‘corsairs’ was attacking Byzantine shipping, and raided the islands of the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.

As if this wasn’t enough, there was the barbarian threat from the north. The book opens with Constantinople besieged by the mighty armies of Khan Krum of the Bulgars, later replaced by Symeon I. And the Bulgars themselves were later superseded by the ‘Rus’, in the shape of the Khan of Kiev and his armies.

Time and again Constantinople is only saved by the impenetrability of its defensive walls. The Byzantine response to these threats was either a) to buy the attackers off with vast tributes of gold and treasure or b) occasionally to lead counter-attacking armies, and the emperors who are best remembered tend to be the ones who were successful in defeating these foes in battle.

Constant war

All this means that Norwich’s book is overwhelmingly, consistently, about war – describing campaigns, battles and – more dispiritingly – the endless cycle of sieges and sackings of cities, the massacring of inhabitants or their selling off into slavery, the ravaging of countryside, the murder and killing and raping and looting of civilians.

Every year, as spring rolled around, the campaigning season resumed and off the armies went to pillage and kill, the armies of the Bulgars or Muslims or Rus or Greeks. It does, eventually, become a quite depressing chronicle of man’s inhumanity to man. Since Norwich hardly mentions Byzantine art or architecture, what you’re left with is a gloomy cavalcade of men’s infinite capacity for murder and destruction.

Palace intrigues

And that’s before you get to the palace politics, for the book also highlights the endless scheming among the emperor’s immediate family and the higher echelons of the civil service and army. There is a whole succession of generals or top administrators who mount coups and seize ultimate power. Successful or failed, the coups are always accompanied, not just by predictable bloodshed, but by especially cruel punishments, namely the blinding and castration of the loser, and often of all his sons (to prevent them presenting a long-term threat the the winner).

The divisive impact of religion

And then there is the perpetual problem of religion. This comes in two forms:

  1. the Patriarch and ‘home’ church of the Greeks might oppose the wishes or behaviour of the emperor, raise crowds and mobs against him, excommunicate him and so on – which led to the forcible deposition and sometimes imprisonment of unruly religious leaders
  2. the Pope in faraway Rome could be just as much of a problem, acting with what the Byzantine emperors considered was unacceptable independence, and forever poking their noses into Byzantine court business, for example supporting or even harbouring a deposed Patriarch, sending ambassadors to the emperor insisting the latter obey this, that or the other stricture of the church

Iconoclasm

And that’s before you even consider the complexifying impact of the great divide about Iconoclasm – the belief that images of any sort should be banned from religion, a policy issued by an emperor which led to the gleeful destruction of untold amounts of painted icons, statues, mosaics and other art works in the following hundred years or so. But for Norwich, interested primarily in the political impact of everything, what matters is that Iconoclasm split the ruling class, with some emperors, empresses, their senior administrators and the aristocracy, and even generals and the army holding directly contrary views – some in favour of the strictest interpretation of Iconoclasm and the destruction of religious images wherever they were found – others directly opposed to this policy, and reversing it whenever they had the chance.

If you combine all these elements – repeated coups and civil wars, permanent cultural civil war over Iconoclasm, and annual invasions and attacks by at least three distinct groups of enemies (Bulgars, Rus, Muslims) – it makes for Game of Thrones levels of political intrigue, poisonings, blindings and assassinations, all set against the permanent backdrop of vicious and immensely destructive wars.

The cover illustration is of a fabulous golden icon, and my impression of Byzantine and Greek Orthodox culture had been of austere magnificence: but this book undermines that and is hard to read, not only because the details are often confusing, but because the overall impression is of unrelenting low-minded conspiracy, killing and destruction, covering entire centuries.


Emperors of Byzantium 802 – 1081

The Empress Irene

Iconoclasm (the banning of religious images and icons) had been instituted by Leo III the Isaurian in 726. 80 years later it still divided the empire. The empress Irene had dominated her weak husband, Leo IV (775-780) and their son, Constantine VI (780-797) who came to the throne aged just nine and who, when he became a threat to her power, Irene had arrested and blinded, resulting in his death soon afterwards.

So then the wicked Empress Irene reigned by herself for five years, alienating most sections of the empire – by being a woman, by being an icon-supporter, and for the foul murder of her own son.

In 800 Pope Leo II crowned King Charles of the Franks as Holy Roman Emperor in St Peter’s Rome. This astonished the Byzantines who considered it an appalling assault on their power and prerogatives, but to both Pope and new Emperor, Irene, as a woman, simply did not count and so, for them, the throne of Roman emperor was vacant.

To seal the deal Charlemagne, in 802, sent Irene a proposal of marriage. This in fact struck her as a decent exit strategy to escape the gathering number of enemies to her rule. But her leading ministers rebelled. Led by the Logosthete of the Treasury (the minister of finance), they mounted a coup, and exiled Irene.

Nicephorian dynasty (802–813)

Nicephorus I Logothetes (802 – 811)

The leader of the coup against Irene took the name Nicephorus. Irene had cancelled loads of taxes in a bid to be popular with the people and thus brought the empire to the brink of bankruptcy. The fact that Nicephorus had been finance minister meant he understood how important it was to revitalise the tax base, rebuild the city’s walls, and build up the army. In 803 an Armenian general in the Byzantine army, Bardanes Turcus, rebelled but his revolt was crushed, Bardanes being sent to a monastery where he was, in the traditional style, blinded to prevent him being any more of a threat.

Irene had tried to buy off both the Khan of the Bulgars (in the north) and the Muslim Caliph Harun al-Raschid (in the East) with gold tribute. Nicephorus immediately cancelled both these tributes, sparking war with both (although Raschid died in 809).

He led initially successful campaigns against the Bulgars but was killed at the Battle of Pliska against the mighty leader of the Bulgars, Khan Krum. Initially, Nicephorus had successfully led raids into Bulgar territory and destroyed their capital city, but he and his army were eventually caught in a narrow defile and annihilated. Krum had Nicephorus’s skull encased in silver and used it as a cup for wine-drinking.

Staurakios (July – October 811)

The only son of Nicephoros I, Staurakios automatically succeeded on his father’s death but had been present at the Battle of Pliska and was himself severely wounded, left paralyzed and in constant pain. He was forced to resign within a year, and retired to a monastery where he died soon after.

Michael I Rangabe (811 – 813)

Son-in-law of Nicephorus I, Michael succeeded Staurakios on the latter’s abdication. A spendthrift in everything except defence, he wasted money on high living while Khan Krum devastated various Byzantine towns.

In late 812 Krum offered battle some miles from the capital and in June Michael marched out at the head of an army but, as battle began, the Anatolian wing of the Byzantine army, led by Leo the Armenian, deserted their posts. As a result the Byzantine army was decimated, Michael made it back to Constantinople where he abdicated (retiring to a monastery where he lived quietly for another thirty years), all four of his sons were castrated and his wife and daughters sent to a monastery – while Leo the Armenian returned to the capital and seized the throne.

Non-dynastic

Leo V ‘the Armenian’ (813 – 820)

Born about 775, Leo joined the army and rose to become a general in which capacity he betrayed the army in a confrontation with Khan Krum of the Bulgars, leading to the abdication of Michael I.

Leo still had to deal with Krum and arranged a meeting with the Bulgar at which he treacherously set assassins to kill him. They failed and Krum made off, infuriated, destroyed all the buildings without Constantinople’s city walls – palaces and churches – then systematically destroyed every Byzantine town he could seize, murdering all the men and taking the women and children into slavery. Adrianople was burned to the ground and the entire population sent into slavery beyond the Danube.

Leo, for his part, mounted some sneaky raids into Bulgar territory where, the chroniclers report, his armies had instructions to kill all the children (dashing their heads against rocks and walls, is the precise description). It was a war of extermination on both sides.

Then, just as Krum was supervising the siege engines rumbling up to the walls of Constantinople for a final siege, he dropped dead of apoplexy. To everyone’s surprise, peace had come.

Leo devoted the remainder of his rule to reviving Iconoclasm. The previous three ill-fated emperors had been icon-supporters and their reigns had coincided with financial and military disasters. Leo hoped to revive support for his rule by falling in line with the majority of the upper class, the army and many of the Eastern refugees (who now thronged the city, having fled the armies of the Arabs) who were all deep-rooted iconoclasts. (Iconoclasm feeling became stronger the further east you went.) In 815 Leo promulgated an edict against images which led to an orgy of destruction across the empire. So much beauty and art, silken vestments, gold icons, priceless statues – destroyed forever.

Something – the chronicles are unclear – led to a rift with his one-time good friend Michael from Armoria, who began speaking openly against the emperor and who Leo had imprisoned and ordered to be thrown into a burning furnace. Before this order could be carried out, Michael was freed by accomplices who went with him to the imperial chapel on Christmas Day 820, where they struck down Leo, first cutting off his sword arm, then his head. Leo’s corpse was paraded in ignominy around the Hippodrome. Leo’s four sons were castrated (one died during the procedure) and sent, along with his wife and daughters, into exile.

Amorian dynasty (820–867)

Michael II ‘the Amorian’ (820 – 829)

Michael was an illiterate boor who made his son co-emperor in a bid to establish a settled dynasty. Almost immediately he faced a rebellion which evolved into a civil war, led by Thomas the Slav, a Byzantine general, who besieged Constantinople. However Thomas’s army was unexpectedly attacked from the north by the Bulgars and massacred. The survivors retreated to a walled town, and Michael now felt confident enough to lead a Byzantine army to besiege them. Michael quickly persuaded the rebels to surrender with a promise of mercy, and to give up Thomas – who promptly had his hands and feet chopped off and his body impaled on a stake.

During Michael’s reign the empire lost Crete to Arab pirates, who ravaged all the towns and converted the entire population into slavery. Another band of Arab adventurers began the Muslim conquest of Sicily. Both islands became the home for Arab corsairs who preyed on shipping all over the eastern Mediterranean, despite Michael sending numerous fleets to try and stop them.

Michael died peacefully in his bed, the first emperor in a sequence of six to do so.

Theophilus (829 – 842)

Born in 813, Theophilus was the only son of Michael II, the illiterate Armorian. Co-emperor since 821, he succeeded on his father’s death aged 25 and was, according to Norwich, ‘magnificently qualified to take on the responsibilities of emperor’.

Theophilus had to deal with the aggressive campaigns from the Muslim East of Caliph Mutasim, who besieged and sacked Armoria, the second city in the empire: when some of the inhabitants took refuge in the town church, Mutasim burned them alive in it, the rest of the population was put in chains and taken back across the desert towards Syria but, when water ran short on this long trek, almost all of them were executed. Only 42 made it alive to Muslim territory. Years later the 42 were offered a final choice between converting to Islam or martyrdom. All 42 chose death and were beheaded on the banks of the River Tigris, thus entering the canon of saints of the Byzantine church. Burning, murdering, death.

Theophilus continued the iconoclastic policies of his father, but rather half-heartedly (with some notably brutal exceptions: he had two Christian writers who refused to renounce icons, tattooed across their faces with a long iconoclastic poem, and he had the greatest icon painter of the time, Lazarus, scourged and branded on the palms of his hands with red hot nails). Nonetheless, in Norwich’s opinion, when Theophilus died, aged just 29, from dysentery, ‘the age of iconoclasm died with him’ (p.52).

Interestingly, in response to the Muslim seizure of Crete and Sicily, Theophilus appealed to the son of Charlemagne, Lewis the Pious, to join forces and drive the Muslims from the Mediterranean. Interesting because, as Norwich points out, if Lewis had done so, the age of the crusades (i.e. armed Western Christian knights interfering in the Muslim Mediterranean world) would have come two and a half centuries early and, if it had become a sustained campaign uniting the Western and Eastern Christians, might have seized back more of the Mediterranean littoral.

Michael III ‘the Drunkard’ (842 – 867)

Born in 840, Michael succeeded on Theophilus was succeeded by his son Michael, born in 840 and so just two years old, with the result that the empire was ruled by his mother, Theodora, until 856. She called a Church Council in 845 which anathematised Iconoclasm, not without the usual fierce ecclesiastical in-fighting. (The fierceness of language and actual bodily violence involved in these Church disputes has to be read to be believed. Senior Christian opponents to imperial policy were often arrested, tortured, scourged and whipped, branded, blinded and exiled.)

The Logothete and eunuch Theoctistus manoeuvred his way to becoming co-ruler with Theodora. (Logothete: An administrative title originating in the eastern Roman Empire. In the middle and late Byzantine Empire, it became a senior administrative title, equivalent to minister or secretary of state.)

Theoctistus led a fleet which managed to recapture Crete, and another Byzantine fleet attacked and ravaged the Muslim naval base at Damietta. In other words, this period saw the start of a significant fightback against Muslim domination of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Theoctistus and the Empress adopted the ruinous policy the pair adopted of the systematic persecution of the heretics known as Paulicians. The Paulicians were Christians of a sort, but rejected large parts of the Old and New Testament and many of the practices of the Church. They were based in Armenia, a mountainous region far to the east of Anatolia. They were ordered to renounce their beliefs but refused, and so a vast military army set out to the East and, if the chroniclers are to be believed, massacred up to 100,000 of the Paulician community – by hanging, drowning, putting to the sword and even crucifixion. Not only was this a foul atrocity in itself, but strategically short-sighted in that it drove the entire community into alliance with the Muslim regime based in Baghdad.

Map showing the spread of the Muslim empire and how surrounded and embattled the Byzantine Empire became (and how foolish it was to drive the Armenians into alliance with the Muslims)

The Empress Theodora’s brother (Michael’s uncle) Bardas, overthrew Theoctistus, confronting him in the palace with a group of soldiers and the young emperor himself, who ran him through with a sword. That was in 855.

Bardas was raised to Caesar in 862. Norwich considers Bardas’s ten year-rule (855-865) one of unparalleled success, notable for his military victories over the Bulgars to the north and the negotiation of their conversion to Christianity, for the growing confidence and distinctness of the Eastern Church, and for Bardas’s personal sponsorship of learning – setting up schools and a university – and the arts.

In the last years of Bardas’s rule the monks and scholars, the brothers Cyril and Methodius, were invited by the Khan of the Bulgars to help convert his Slavic people to Christianity. (Formerly it was believed that Cyril, forced to invent new letters to convey Slavic speech sounds, invented the Cyrillic script which is named after him. Nowadays it is thought he and Methodius invented the Glagolitic script, and that Cyrillic was developed later by their students and followers.)

This story didn’t end well, though, because the Khan of the Bulgars wrote a long letter to the emperor complaining about the endless squabbles among the Byzantine Christian missionaries, and asking for clarification on various points of theology. The emperor Michael made the mistake of arrogantly dismissing it, with the result that the Khan turned to the Pope, who gave him a clear, thorough and polite response. The result was the Khan of the Bulgars gave his allegiance to the Pope in Rome and expelled all the Byzantine missionaries.

Meanwhile, Emperor Michael declined into alcoholism. In his last years he took a favourite, Basil, a strong, illiterate peasant from Armenia, talented with horses, and raised him to the level of Court Chamberlain. All kind of speculation floats around him, including the possibility that he was Michael’s gay lover. Michael ordered Basil to marry a young woman who was almost certainly Michael’s mistress, in order to give his mistress free access to the palace (and Michael), without scandalising the clergy. It is possible, then, that when Basil’s wife bore him children, they were in fact the children of the emperor…

Whatever the details, Basil tightened his grip on Michael’s affections, becoming a serious rival to Michael’s uncle, Bardas. On 21 April 866, on the eve of a naval expedition which he was meant to be leading to liberate Crete from the Muslims, Bardas was sitting next to Michael in the imperial pavilion, when Bardas stepped forward and assassinated him. The emperor was obviously in on the coup because he issued a statement declaring Bardas a traitor and exonerating Basil.

Macedonian dynasty (867–1056)

Basil I ‘the Macedonian’ (867 – 886)

Having assassinated Michael’s uncle, Bardas, in 866, 18 months later, on 24 September 867, Basil and seven followers killed the emperor Michael as he lay in a drunken stupor in his bedchamber. Basil had himself proclaimed basileus.

Basil led successful wars in the East against the Arabs and the Paulicians, and seized back the entire Dalmatian coast, Bari, and all southern Italy for the Empire. He initiated a major review and digest of the laws (on the model of Justinian’s code) and also commissioned the building of new churches and palaces. He had four sons but one, young Constantine, was the apple of his eye. When Constantine died suddenly in 879, Basil went into a decline, becoming surly, reclusive and unbalanced. A later legend says he was killed by a stag while out hunting. We’ll never know for sure.

Leo VI ‘the Wise’ (886 – 912)

Instead of Basil’s favourite son, Constantine, it was his next eldest son, Leo, who succeeded, aged twenty. Already he has acquired the nickname ‘the wise’ for his scholarship, grace and deportment. But Leo VI’s reign saw an increase in Muslim naval raids, culminating in the Sack of Thessalonica, and was marked by unsuccessful wars against the Bulgarians under Symeon I.

Leo sparked a far-ranging religious dispute because he married a succession of wives, who all managed to die of illness or in childbirth. He kept at it because he was desperate for a male heir but when he married for the fourth time, to Zoe ‘Carbonopsina’ (of the black eyes), the church was outraged.

Orthodox theology disapproved of even one remarriage, only reluctantly admitted two – so long as the partners spent a good deal of time repenting and praying – but to remarry for a third time was completely forbidden and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nicholas, was not slow to criticise and anathematise the emperor. So Leo had Nicholas exiled and appointed a new Patriarch who carried out his wishes. But Nicholas’s dismissal and the scandal of the four marriages split the church into fiercely opposing factions.

Alexander (912 – 913)

Leo had sidelined his brother, Alexander, during his reign. When Leo finally died his brother inherited and promptly set about undoing much of his brother’s work, starting by banishing Leo’s wife, Zoe, and ignoring Leo’s careful diplomacy with the ever-threatening Bulgars. He restored the troublesome patriarch, Nicholas, who Leo had dismissed and who returned from exile furious and determined to take his revenge on everyone in the hierarchy who had condoned Leo’s marriage.

Alexander was an alcoholic and died of exhaustion after a polo game, leaving the throne to Leo’s young son, Constantine, born in 905 and so aged just seven.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913 – 959)

At Alexander’s death there is a scrabble for power. When Zoe learned that Alexander lay dying she rushed back to the palace to protect her and Leo’s son, Constantine. On his deathbed Alexander confirmed Constantine as heir, but appointed a Regency Council led by Nicholas. And the first thing Nicholas did was order the empress to have her hair shorn and be sent to a nunnery, where she was renamed Sister Anna.

Within days the leader of the army, Constantine Ducas, mounted a coup against the regency Council, but as he snuck into the city, he and his conspirators (including his eldest son, Gregory) were caught and killed. Almost certainly Nicholas was in league with Ducas but, after the coup failed, it gave Nicholas the pretext he needed to launch a drastic reign of terror.

Whole companies were massacred, their bodies impaled along the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus; others were flogged or blinded…. Ducas’s widow was exiled… his younger son… was castrated. (p.127)

Leo VI had wisely paid a tribute or bribe to Symeon the Great, Khan of the Bulgars, to stop him ravaging Thrace (the area to the north of Constantinople).

Constantine rashly stopped the payment with the result that Symeon led a Bulgar army right up to the walls of Constantinople. At this point the Patriarch Nicholas went out to see Symeon and did some kind of deal, so that the Bulgars went away.

But 1. Nicholas’s brutal treatment of the empress and 2. his brutal treatment of the army and 3. the rumour that he had sold out to the Bulgars, led to the collapse of the Regency Council. This triggered the swift return of ‘Sister Anna’, who reclaimed the role of Augusta and Regent and her true name of Zoe.

The next thing that happened was a coup organised by the admiral Romanus Lecapenos. He overthrew the empress (and sent her back to the convent again, hair shorn, Sister Anna once more) and quickly wedded his daughter to Constantine, thus becoming the young emperor’s father-in-law. Romanus worked to make himself invaluable and to seize all the levers of state. Eventually he got himself crowned senior emperor in 920.

Constantine was sidelined during the Lecapenos regime, but asserted his control by deposing Romanus’s sons in early 945. Byzantine forces helped an Armenian king against the Muslims in the East and destroyed an advancing Muslim army in south Italy, restoring a lot of the empire’s prestige. The Byzantines then caught an attacking army of Bulgars under Symeon I unprepared, forcing it to retire back over the Danube.

Constantine’s long reign also saw a flourishing of the arts known as the ‘Macedonian Renaissance’, with the emperor sponsoring encyclopaedic works and histories. He was a prolific writer himself, best remembered for the manuals on statecraft (De administrando imperio) and ceremonies (De ceremoniis) which he compiled for his son, Romanus II.

Romanus I Lecapenos (920 – 944)

This is the admiral, mentioned above, who seized power in 920 and ruled as the emperor Constantine’s ‘father-in-law’. After becoming the emperor’s father-in-law, he successively assumed higher offices until he crowned himself senior emperor. Like a previous Armenian emperor, Basil I, Romanus was keen to create a family dynasty.

His reign was marked by the end of warfare with Bulgaria and the great conquests of John Kourkouas in the East. Romanus promoted his sons Christopher, Stephen and Constantine as co-emperors over Constantine VII. Eventually Constantine VII threw off his rule and sent him to an island as a monk. He died there on 15 June 948.

Romanus II ‘the Purple-born ‘ (959 – 963)

The only surviving son of Constantine VII, Romanus was born on 15 March 938 and succeeded his father on the latter’s death in 959. He ruled for four years, although the government was led mostly by the eunuch Joseph Bringas. His reign was marked by successful warfare in the East against Sayf al-Dawla and the recovery of Crete by general Nicephorus Phocas.

Nicephorus Phocas (963 – 969)

The most successful general of his generation who restored Byzantine fortunes in the West and East, Nicephorus II was born around 912 to the powerful Phocas clan. The Phocas family were one of the leading powers in the state, having already produced several generals, including Nicephorus’ father Bardas Phocas, his brother Leo Phocas, and grandfather Nicephorus Phocas the Elder.

On the ascension of Emperor Romanus II in 959, Nicephoros and his younger brother Leo Phocas had been placed in charge of the eastern and western field armies respectively. In 960, 27,000 oarsmen and marines were assembled to man a fleet of 308 ships carrying 50,000 troops in a campaign against the Muslim Emirate of Crete. They besieged the capital, Chandax, till it fell in 961, and took back the island after 130 years of Muslim occupation. Meanwhile, another Byzantine force recovered Cyprus in 965.

Nicephorus was recalled to Constantinople by Constantine and sent to the East, where he defeated the governor of Tarsus, ibn al-Zayyat in open battle, before taking the major Muslim city of Aleppo. From 964 to 965, he led an army of 40,000 men which liberated Cilicia and raided in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria. Then Nicephorus led Byzantine forces which besieged and took Tarsus. In 968, Nicephorus conducted a raid through Syria into Palestine which reached the city of Tripoli, raiding and sacking most of the fortresses along his path and which finally managed to take the city of Antioch. It was a high summer for the empire.

However, to finance these wars Nicephorus had increased taxes both on the people and on the church at a time of poor harvests and general dearth, while maintaining unpopular theological positions and alienating many of his most powerful allies. This combination of policies led to a series of riots in Constantinople. These involved his nephew, John Tzimiskes, who, despite having played a key role in many of his military victories, Nicephorus banished to Asia Minor on suspicion of disloyalty.

Tzimiskes was a popular general and, rallying his supporters, was smuggled back to Constantinople. Fellow conspirators let him into the palace, where he and a gang of collaborators murdered Nicephorus in his sleep. Thus ended the life of one of the most successful emperor-generals in Byzantine history.

John I Tzimiskes (969 – 976)

Tzimiskes took over as regent for the young sons of Romanus II. As ruler, Tzimiskes crushed the Rus in Bulgaria and ended the Bulgarian tsardom, before going on to campaign in the East.

According to Norwich, travelling through Anatolia John was appalled to discover the vast extent of the lands acquired by the Imperial chamberlain Basil Lecapenos. Basil got to hear about the emperor’s anger and, fearing that he was about to lose his lands and position, paid servants to administer a poison to Tzimiskes. Taken very ill, John just about made it back to Constantinople before dying. He was, in Norwich’s opinion:

One of the greatest of Byzantine emperors (p.230)

Basil II ‘the Bulgar-Slayer’ (976 – 1025)

Basil was the eldest son Romanus II, born in 958 and, with Tzimiskes’ death, he now inherited the throne aged just 18. He was to have a long and successful reign but the first half was a struggle to establish his own personal rule.

The first decade of his reign was marked by rivalry with the powerful Imperial chamberlain, the eunuch Basil Lecapenos, who he eventually managed to overthrow, confiscating all his estates and having him banished. Then there was a prolonged attempt by two rival generals  – Bardas Phocas and Bardas Sclerus – to overthrow him, though the generals spent as much time fighting each other as the emperor. Both eventually failed, though not after prolonged unrest and military campaigns.

Threatened by the rise of Thomas the Slav who revived the kingdom of the Bulgarians, Basil found it wise to form an alliance with Vladimir I of Kiev whose entry into the Church (the baptism of him and his court) Basil supervised, as well as marrying off his sister, Anna, to the new convert. Vladimir would, in time, be made into a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church, for his zeal in building churches, monasteries, and converting his people.

In his campaigns in the East against the Muslims, Basil had seen for himself the immense estates built up by the class of ‘nobles’ or ‘those with power’, and he determined to break their influence, confiscating all large estates, reducing much of the aristocracy to poverty, rejuvenating the peasant communities which the empire depended on for its manpower, and reverting large tracts of land to the emperor.

Basil then did a deal whereby Venice was awarded the coast of Dalmatia to rule under Byzantine suzerainty: this suited the Venetians for the area was rich in wood and grain, and they also wanted to campaign against Croatian pirates; and suited Basil because it left him free for his life’s work, a sustained campaign against Bulgaria. It took twenty years but he eventually defeated Thomas the Slav and his son, and the usurper who murdered the son. All Bulgarian territory and cities were seized, and all survivors of the royal family taken prisoner off to Constantinople. In fact Basil ruled wisely, keeping taxes deliberately low and assimilating leading Bulgar aristocrats into the Byzantine administration.

Basil II’s reign is widely considered the apogee of medieval Byzantium.

Map of the Byzantine Empire in the year 1025 – most of present-day Turkey, Greece, the southern Balkans and south Italy

Constantine VIII (1025 – 1028)

The second son of Romanus II, Constantine was born in 960 and raised to co-emperor in March 962. During the rule of Basil II, he spent his time in dissipation. He was 65 when he came to power and managed, in three short years, to fritter away almost all of his brother’s achievements. Unsure of his powers, he became paranoid, suspicious of courtiers and plots, and hundreds of men arrested, tortured and blinded on trumped-up charges.

Only on his death-bed, aged 68, did he worry about the succession. He had three daughters, themselves now relatively old (in their 40s and 50s) and decided that the most presentable of them, Zoe, should be married off to continue the line. After some squabbling about who the lucky man should be, his civil service settled on Romanus Argyros to be Zoe’s husband. The fact that Romanus was already married was not a barrier, since Constantine said, Marry my daughter or I will blind you and your wife. So Romanus’s wife willingly divorced him, took the veil and disappeared to a convent. Next day Romanus married Zoe. Next day the emperor was dead.

Zoe (1028 – 1050)

The daughter of Constantine VIII, Zoe succeeded on her father’s death, as the only surviving member of the Macedonian dynasty. She had three husbands – Romanus III (1028–1034), Michael IV (1034–1041) and Constantine IX (1042–1050) – who ruled in quick succession alongside her.

Zoe’s first husband: Romanus III Argyros (1028 – 1034)

Romanus was an ageing aristocrat, judge and administrator when he was chosen by Constantine VIII on his deathbed to become Zoe’s husband. He was educated but had an inflated opinion of his own abilities and led his army into a disastrous defeat against the Muslims in Syria. Realising his limitations he decided to make a name for himself by building an enormous church to Mary Mother of God, but taxed the population of Constantinople to the hilt to build it with the result that he became very unpopular.

Contemporary chroniclers also claim he had alienated his wife once he realised they were never going to conceive a child (despite both parties spending lots of money on amulets and charms and potions to restore fertility). He had her confined to her quarters and cut her spending allowance.

Gossip had it that Zoe took a young, handsome Greek lover, Michael, related to the most powerful figure at the court, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos. The chronicler Michael Psellus suggests the couple poisoned Romanus who was discovered expiring by an imperial swimming pool.

Zoe’s second husband: Michael IV ‘the Paphlagonian’ (1034 – 1041)

Within hours of Romanus’s death, Zoe arranged to be enthroned alongside her 18-year-old lover Michael.

Michael quickly came to despise his aging wife and, once again, had her confined to her quarters. He was an epileptic when they married and his condition rapidly worsened, so that he had a curtain installed around the throne which could be quickly drawn by servants at the first sign of a fresh attack.

Aided by his older brother, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos, Michael’s reign was moderately successful against internal rebellions, but his massed attempt to recover Sicily from the Muslims totally failed, not least because it was put under the command of John the Orphanotrophos’s sister’s husband, Stephen.

As he grew iller, Michael spent more time building churches and having masses said for his soul. His older brother, the by-now all-powerful John the Orphanotrophos, could see he was dying and cast around for ways to preserve the dynasty. His other brothers were eunuchs, so John’s search alighted on the son of his sister, Maria, and her husband Stephen, Michael.

Basil II had wisely decreed the defeated Bulgarians should only pay tax in kind. John the Orphanotrophos unwisely revoked this and imposed tax demands in gold. This, plus the imposition of an unpopular Greek to rule their church, led to a revolt of the Bulgars. Michael amazed everyone by taking to his horse and leading the Byzantine army which successfully put the revolt down. He then returned to the capital and died.

Zoe’s son: Michael V Calaphates (‘the Caulker’) (1041 – 1042)

In the last stages of terminal illness, Michael IV was persuaded to adopt Stephen’s son (his nephew), also named Michael, as his own son and heir. Michael IV duly died, aged just 25, and was succeeded by this nephew and namesake, who became Michael V.

In time Michael would be nicknamed calaphates or ‘the caulker’ because this had been the humble shipyard profession of his father, Stephen, before John the Orphanotrophos had wangled him a job as admiral on the ill-fated expedition to reclaim Sicily. He certainly had a very tenuous claim to the throne.

No emperor in the whole history of Byzantium had less title to the throne than Michael Calaphates. (Norwich p.292)

Michael V immediately 1. mounted an assault on the court civil service, making widespread changes 2. removed John the Orphanotrophos from power, confiscating his property and sending him to a monastery. Next he tried to sideline Zoe, having her shaven and send to a convent, but, unexpectedly, this sparked a popular revolt which led to days of mass rioting – resulting in the largest casualties from civic strife the capital had seen since the Nika riots. Michael was forced to recall her and restore her as empress on 19 April 1042, along with her sister Theodora but this wasn’t enough. Norwich quotes the eye witness account of Michael Psellus who went with the mob to the palace chapel where Michael and his uncle, Constantine, were hiding, describes them being persuaded to leave, escorted by the City Prefect through a jeering mob, and then met by the public executioner sent by Zoe, who proceeded to blind them both in front of the baying mob. They were both sent to separate monasteries, Michael dying later that year.

Michael had managed to get himself deposed after a pitiful four months and 11 days on the throne,

Zoe had hoped the riots were solely in her favour but it became apparent that the city didn’t trust her, associating her too much with the ancient regime, and began clamouring for her sister, Theodora who had, fifty years earlier, been consigned to a convent where she had spent most of her life.

Zoe’s sister: Theodora (1042 – 1056)

Born in 984, Theodora was therefore 58 when she was raised as co-ruler on 19 April 1042. However, it quickly became clear that the sisters didn’t get on and that, worse, the court, civil administration, the army and so on were liable to divide into sects supporting one or other woman. The solution was to bring a man in to rule. Theodora, still a highly religious virgin, refused absolutely to be married, but Zoe, now 64, accepted with relish. (It is symptomatic of the name shortage in Byzantium that all three of the candidates which were considered for her hand were named Constantine.)

Zoe’s third husband: Constantine IX Monomachos (1042 – 1055)

Wikipedia tells the story:

Constantine Monomachos was the son of Theodosius Monomachos, an important bureaucrat under Basil II and Constantine VIII. At some point, Theodosius had been suspected of conspiracy and his son’s career suffered accordingly. Constantine’s position improved after he married his second wife, a niece of Emperor Romanus III Argyros. After catching the eye of the Empress Zoe, Constantine was exiled to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos by Zoe’s second husband, Michael IV.

The death of Michael IV and the overthrow of Michael V in 1042 led to Constantine being recalled from his place of exile and appointed as a judge in Greece. However, prior to commencing his appointment, Constantine was summoned to Constantinople, where the fragile working relationship between Michael V’s successors, the empresses Zoe and Theodora, was breaking down. After two months of increasing acrimony between the two, Zoe decided to search for a new husband, thereby hoping to prevent her sister from increasing her popularity and authority.

After her first preference displayed contempt for the empress and her second died under mysterious circumstances, Zoe remembered the handsome and urbane Constantine. The pair were married on 11 June 1042, without the participation of Patriarch Alexius I of Constantinople, who refused to officiate over a third marriage (for both spouses). On the following day, Constantine was formally proclaimed emperor together with Zoe and her sister Theodora.

During his thirteen-year rule Constantine supported the mercantile classes and favoured the company of intellectuals, thereby alienating the military aristocracy. A pleasure-loving ruler, he installed his long-term mistress, Maria, grand-daughter of the rebel Bardas Sclerus, in the palace with the apparent approval of the old empress, although this scandalised public opinion. He endowed a number of monasteries, chiefly the Nea Moni of Chios and the Mangana Monastery.

He had to cope with two major military revolts, of George Maniakes, the empire’s leading general who was rampaging across southern Italy in combat with the new power in the region, the Normans, and who, when recalled to the capital, was so angry that he had himself declared emperor by his troops in 1042 and marched on Constantinople, ending up killed in a skirmish with loyal troops in Thessalonica in 1043; and three years later by Leo Tornikios, who raised an army in Thrace and marched on the capital, which he besieged. After two failed assaults Leo withdrew, his army deserted him and he was captured. At Christmas 1047, he was blinded and no more is known of him.

Though he survived these threats, Constantine’s rule saw the elimination of the Byzantine presence from Calabria and Sicily, the Seljuk Turks had established themselves in Baghdad and were planning their invasions of Anatolia, and the Danube frontier had been breached by a number of invading tribes – the Pechenegs, the Cumans and the Uz. Which leads Norwich to comment:

The Emperor Constantine IX was more confident than Constantine VIII, more of a realist than Romanus Argyrus, healthier than Michael IV and less headstrong than Michael V. Politically, however, through sheer idleness and irresponsibility, he was to do the Empire more harm than the rest of them put together. (p.307)

Norwich goes into great detail to describe the Great Schism between the patriarchates of Rome and Constantinople which climaxed in legates from Rome placing a grand bull of excommunication on the high altar of St Sophia cathedral during the Eucharist. It is a long, sorry, shambolic story of misunderstandings and animosity between bigots on both sides.

This was bad politics because both sides needed to unite to drive the Normans out of Sicily. Their disunity allowed the Normans to seize control of the island and part of southern Italy. Interestingly, Constantine set about restoring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which had been substantially destroyed in 1009 by Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, and endowing other churches in Palestine.

During Constantine’s reign, Theodora was again sidelined, but Zoe died in 1050, and Constantine himself followed her in 1055. At which point Theodora briefly assumed full governance of the Empire and reigned until her own death the following year (1056).

As both Theodora and Zoe had no children, the chronicler Michael Psellus describes the panic-stricken meetings in which senior officials cast around for someone to replace her. They finally settled on an elderly patrician and a member of the court bureaucracy, Michael Bringas, who had served as military finance minister (and hence the epithet Stratiotikos often attached to his name). The senior civil servants knew he was one of them, and thought he would be easily managed. The dying Empress was persuaded to nod her head in approval of the choice, just hours before she passed away.

Non-dynastic (1056–1057)

Michael VI Bringas ‘the Old’ (1056 – 1057)

Michael was in his 60s, an ageing bureaucrat who had put up with years of low level abuse from military types. Now, as emperor, he took his revenge, spending money on the civil service and state officials, but underfunding the army. In his first review of the leading generals he amazed them by berating them in violent terms, and followed it up a few days later with more of the same.

They rebelled. A conspiracy of generals persuaded their leading figure, the tall, successful leader Isaac Comnenus, to lead the army of the East against Constantinople. Everywhere they went troops and citizens rallied to his flag, but nonetheless they were forced to fight a hard-fought battle against the army of Europe which Michael had summoned to his defence, just across the Bosphorus near Nicomedi. After a prolonged struggle, the eastern army triumphed and – after negotiations with Michael’s envoys – the emperor abdicated and was allowed to retired to a monastery where he died in 1059.

Comnenid dynasty (1057–1059)

Isaac I Comnenus (1057 – 1059)

Born about 1005, Isaac was the empire’s leading general when he was declared emperor by his troops and led them against Constantinople in 1057. He reigned for just two years, during which he tried to fund and organise the army better, but alienated the church (by arresting Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch who had persuaded Michael VI to abdicate) and much of the population (rigorous collection of taxes, reduction in state salaries, confiscation of property from the mega-rich).

There are two stories about his death: either he simply abdicated, perhaps depressed by the scale of the problems he faced and the obdurate roadblocking of the civil service, and retired to a monastery. In the other version he caught a chill while out hunting which turned into pneumonia.

In both versions of the story Isaac needed to name a successor and ignored his daughter, brother and five nephews to choose Constantine Ducas, the most aristocratic of the group of intellectuals who had helped revive Byzantine learning a few years before.

Doucid dynasty (1059–1081)

Constantine X Ducas (1059 – 1067)

There is no Emperor in the history of the later Roman Empire whose accession had more disastrous consequences. (p.337)

Constantine was a highly educated Greek aristocrat but he was also, in Norwich’s opinion, ‘a hopelessly impractical and woolly-minded bureaucrat’ (p.336) and ‘arguably the most disastrous ruler ever to don the purple buskins’ (p.338).

Why all the blame? Because Constantine wasted the imperial finances on high living and indulged in theological and philosophical speculation. Meanwhile he replaced standing soldiers with mercenaries and left the frontier fortifications unrepaired.

This led to mounting unhappiness within the army and an attempt by some generals to assassinate him in 1061 which was foiled. The result of running down the army was that under his rule the Empire lost most of Byzantine Italy to the Normans under Robert Guiscard, suffered invasions by Alp Arslan in Asia Minor in 1064, resulting in the loss of the Armenian capital, and by the Oghuz Turks in the Balkans in 1065, while Belgrade was lost to the Hungarians.

But it is the rising threat from the Seljuk Turks which Norwich focuses on. He describes the Turks as being a nomadic tribe of warriors, famed for their abilities firing a bow and arrow from the saddle, which originated in Transoxiana, and moved south, converting to Islam and slowly taking over Persia. They finally seized the capital of the old Abbasid Dynasty, Baghdad, in 1055. Meanwhile they also led expeditions against Armenia, which was by way of being a buffer state between the east and the Empire, and then pushed on into Anatolia, raiding as far as Ankara and Caesarea.

It is for Constantine’s systematic and deliberate running down of the Empire’s army and physical defences that Norwich names him worst Byzantine Emperor ever. In the same year that the Turks penetrated as far as Ankyra – with no army or force of any kind sent to prevent them – that Constantine died.

On his deathbed Constantine made his wife swear not to remarry and made all the senior officials sign a pledge that the succession could only go to a member of his family, the Ducases.

By his second wife, Eudocia Macrembolitissa, Constantine had the following sons:

  • Michael VII Ducas, who succeeded as emperor
  • Andronicus Ducas, co-emperor from 1068 to 1078
  • Constantius Ducas, co-emperor from 1060 to 1078

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078) part 1

Born about 1050, Michael was the eldest son of Constantine X and succeeded to the throne aged 17 but showed little interest in ruling, leaving that to his mother, Eudocia, and uncle, John Ducas.

On 1 January 1068, Eudocia, having deceived the leading aristocrats about her intentions in order to get her deathbed promise to Constantine not to marry again annulled, married the general Romanus Diogenes, who now became senior co-emperor alongside Michael VII, and Michael’s brothers Constantius and Andronicus.

Romanus IV Diogenes (1068 – 1071)

If the Ducas family was one of the grandest, oldest and most illustrious parts of the courtly bureaucracy, Romanus hailed from the Anatolian military aristocracy. Eudocia, at least, appeared to realise that, with the pressing threat from the Turks, the Empire needed a strong military leader.

Michael VII had surrounded himself with sycophantic court officials, and was blind to the empire collapsing around him. In dire straits, imperial officials resorted to property confiscations and even expropriated some of the wealth of the church. The underpaid army mutinied, and the Byzantines lost Bari, their last possession in Italy, to the Normans of Robert Guiscard in 1071. Simultaneously, there was a serious revolt in the Balkans, where the Empire faced an attempt at the restoration of the Bulgarian state. Although this revolt was suppressed by the general Nicephorus Bryennius, the Byzantine Empire was unable to recover its losses in Asia Minor.

Struggling against this tide, Romanus immediately began to try and correct all the abuses which had built up around the army, to settle all arrears of pay, negotiate new contracts with mercenary soldiers, raise new levies from peasants in Anatolia, improve equipment and training.

In 1068, 1069, and 1070 he led raids into Turkish territory, seizing towns. The leader of the Turks by this point was Alp Arslan and the two leaders tried to negotiate a truce, but this was constantly broken by the Turcomen, lawless bandits related to the Turks who had not adopted Islam or any central authority.

Finally Romanus set off in the spring of 1071 with the largest army he could muster to crush the Turks. But – to be brief – it was he and the Byzantine army which was crushingly and definitively defeated, at a massive battle near the small fortress of Manzikert in August 1071.

There is reams of speculation about what exactly happened, but it seems certain that, having split his army in two due to uncertainty about the precise location of the Turk army, when Romanus located it and called for the other half, led by Joseph Tarchaniotes, to come to his aid, it didn’t. Speculation why continues to this day. After lining up for an engagement the Turks then retreated systematically, luring Romanus’s army towards mountains at the edge of the plain, where he feared getting trapped, so turned his forces. But some of them interpreted this as flight, rumour spread that the Emperor was killed, the Turks suddenly attacked in force, and the rearguard, led by one of the rival Ducas clan, fled. The remaining army was massacred by the Turks, Romanus fighting to the end, captured and brought before the Turkish leader.

The battle of Manzikert was the greatest disaster suffered by the Empire of Byzantium in the seven and a half centuries of its existence. (p.357)

Alp treated Romanus with respect, concluded a treaty with him, had him dressed, his wounds treated, and escorted back towards Constantinople: it would pay him to have a defeated Emperor in his power who would respect their treaty, rather than a new young buck who would ignore it. But Romanus’s fate was already sealed.

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078) part 2

When rumours of a calamitous defeat reached Constantinople, the initiative was taken by Michael’s uncle John Ducas and his tutor Michael Psellus. They quickly proclaimed Michael VII Senior Emperor and he was crowned as such on October 24, 1071. Eudocia was quickly despatched to a convent.

Romanus seems to have mustered what remained of his army for the return march on Constantinople but was beaten in two consecutive battles with loyalist troops, after the second of which he gave himself up. Despite promises of a safe passage he was blinded and then paraded in rags sitting backwards on a donkey.

After Manzikert, the Byzantine government sent a new army to contain the Seljuk Turks under Isaac Comnenus, a brother of the future emperor Alexius I Comnenus, but this army was defeated and its commander captured in 1073.

The problem was made worse by the desertion of the Byzantines’ western mercenaries, who became the object of the next military expedition in the area, led by the Caesar John Ducas. This campaign also ended in failure, and its commander was likewise captured by the enemy.

The victorious mercenaries now forced John Ducas to stand as pretender to the throne. The government of Michael VII was forced to recognize the conquests of the Seljuks in Asia Minor in 1074, and to seek their support against Ducas. A new army under Alexius Comnenus, reinforced by Seljuk troops sent by Malik Shah I, finally defeated the mercenaries and captured John Ducas in 1074.

The net effect of these years of chaos was that the Turks established enduring control of a vast swathe of Anatolia, previously the main source for the Empire’s grain and manpower. The Turks named it the Sultanate of Rum (derived from ‘Rome’).

The economic upheaval caused by all these defeats added to widespread dissatisfaction and in 1078 two generals, Nicephorus Bryennius and Nicephorus Botaneiates, simultaneously revolted in the Balkans and Anatolia, respectively.

Bryennius raised the standard of revolt in November 1077 in his native city of Adrianople and marched on the capital. But, out east, Botaneiates gained the support of the Seljuk Turks, and he reached Constantinople first. They arrived as rising prices and food shortages led to riots and widespread burning and looting in March 1078. Michael abdicated on March 31, 1078 and retired into the Monastery of Studium.

Nicephorus III Botaneiates (1078 – 1081)

Born in 1001, Nicephorus rose to become the strategos of the Anatolic Theme, rebelled against Michael VII and was welcomed into the capital as a saviour to the ruioting and anarchy. He had his rival Bryennius arrested and blinded.

Botaneiates was in his seventies when he came to power, old and faced with the breakdown of the civil authority (after the leading bureaucrat had been murdered in the riots) and the ongoing weakness of the army on all fronts, which led to uprisings, rebellions and invasions on all borders, Botaneiates struggled and failed to cope.

Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118)

In the nick of time arrived a saviour. Exhausted, Botaneiates abdicated in 1081 and retired to a monastery where he died on 10 December of the same year. He abdicated in favour of an aristocratic young general who was to reign for the next 37 years with a firm hand and give the Empire the stability is so sorely needed.

He was Alexius Comnenus, nephew of Isaac Comnenus. His reign was to be dominated by wars against the Normans and the Seljuk Turks, as well as the arrival of the First Crusade and the establishment of independent Crusader states. But that is the start of a new era, and so here Norwich ends the second volume of his history of the Byzantine Empire.


Thoughts

Same names

I found this book hard going for several reasons. The most obvious is there’s a lot of repetition of names. Quite a few Leos, Michaels, Nicephoruses and Theodosuses recur throughout the narrative and when, on page 265, you find yourself reading about yet another Leo or another Michael, suddenly your mind goes completely blank and you can’t remember whether this is the one who inherited as a baby or was an alcoholic or murdered his brother or what…

And it’s not just the emperors’ names which get confusing. There were roughly two other major figures at any one moment of Byzantine history – the Patriarch of Constantinople – the head of the Eastern Church – and the Logothete or Chamberlain (in fact there were a number of logothetes with specialised roles, but there only ever seems to be one head of the imperial household and/or civil service at a time).

The point is that these other figures, also share just a handful of the same names. There were quite a few patriarchs named Leo or Nicephorus, and the same with the logothetes.

Then there’s the popes. Every Eastern Emperor and Patriarch had a troubled relationship with the Patriarch of Rome who increasingly ran the Western Church and, after Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800, had an increasing say in the running of the new Holy Roman Empire.

There appear to have been no fewer than ten popes named Leo during the three hundred years covered by this book. At the moment I am reading about the overthrow of the emperor Constantine by the Armenian general Romanus who, once he had seized power, had to settle things with his powerful rival Leo Phocas, before turning to turning to settle things with pope Leo. And all this is recorded for us in the chronicle of Leo the Deacon.

There are lots of Leos in this book.

It doesn’t help that Norwich’s standard practice is to introduce a new figure with their full title and number (Leo V, Michael II) but thereafter to omit the number. So you can easily find yourself reading about a Leo conspiring against a Nicephorus while a Basil lurks in the background – and wonder whether you’re in the 8th, 9th or 10th century.

The lack of social history indicates deeper gaps and absences

In fact this confusion about names and people stems from a deeper problem. Norwich, in his preface, candidly admits he isn’t interested in economic or social history. He likes people, and so his book is purely a history of the succession of the emperors, their wives, of troublesome patriarchs and rebellious generals – a history enlivened with plenty of gossip and speculation about the emperors’ sex lives and true parentages and military campaigns and heroic monuments. Fair enough, and all very entertaining.

But the unintended consequence of this VIP-based approach is that nothing ever seems to change.

The empire is permanently threatened by the Muslims in the east and the barbarians from the north. Time and again, one or other of them leads a massive army right up to the walls of Constantinople. Time and again, the emperor has a falling-out with the patriarch, imprisons him, replaces him, and holds an ecumenical council to try and impose his will on the church. Time and again, a rebellious general or jealous colleague assassinates the emperor in the heart of the palace and declares himself basileus.

There is little or no sense of historical change or development. Instead it feels a little like we are trapped in a very ornate version of Groundhog Day.

This is more than just confusing – the absence of economic or social history really profoundly fails to capture the passage of time.

What was the impact of mass destruction? I grew puzzled and frustrated every time I read that the Bulgars razed Adrianople to the ground and took 100,000 citizens off into slavery; or the Muslims razed Armoria to the ground and devastated the entire region, or captured Sicily or Crete.

Because in Norwich’s narrative, events like this are only interesting or relevant insofar as they consolidate or undermine each emperor’s position, as they feed into court intrigues.

But I kept wondering about their effect on the Byzantine Empire as a whole? Surely the utter destruction of its second city, the ravaging of entire areas, and the loss of major islands in the Mediterranean – surely these events changed things: surely trade and the economy were affected, surely the tax base and therefore the ability to pay for civil services and the army were affected. Surely archaeology or letters or books by private citizens might shed light on the impact of these events and what it felt like to live through them.

But none of that is included in Norwich’s narrative, which focuses exclusively on the tiny, tiny number of people right at the pinnacle of the empire and their increasingly squalid and repetitive shenanigans.

This is a highly entertaining account of the colourful lives and conspiracies of the Byzantine emperors, which gives you all the major political and biographical events of the period, but – the more I read it, the more I felt I was missing out on a deeper understanding of the Byzantine Empire, of its economy and trade – was it based on farming (and if so, of what?), or mining, or trade (and if so, with who?).

Writers And of its broader social structure and changes. Were there no poets or chroniclers who give us insight into the lives of ordinary people – farmers, and traders and lawyers – beyond the corrupt and violent emperors and their horrible families?

Art Art is mentioned occasionally, but only in the context of the massive schisms caused by Iconoclasm. I appreciate that there are other, separate books devoted to Byzantine art, but it’s just one of a whole range of social and cultural areas which remain pretty much a blank.

Slavery Slavery is repeatedly mentioned as a fundamental element of the empire and, indeed, of the surrounding societies. We hear again and again that both Muslim and barbarian raiders sold their captives into slavery. But what did that mean? Who ran the slave trade? Which societies had most slaves? What was a slave’s life like? How did you escape from slavery, because there are casual mentions of former slaves who rise to positions of power…

Eunuchs Eunuchs played a key role in Byzantine civilisation, and plenty of sons of deposed emperors were castrated; but not once does Norwich explain what this really meant, I mean not only how the operation was carried out, but there is no exploration of the culture of the court eunuchs, and how this made the Byzantine court different from those of, say, the King of the Franks or the Muslim Caliph in Baghdad.

So this is a great gaudy romp of a book which gives you all the necessary dates and explanations of the political and military history – but I was left wanting to know a lot more about the Byzantine Empire.


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