Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy (2014) – 2

Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography of Augustus is long, thorough and consistently interesting, shedding light not only on the man himself but containing an immense amount of background information on the customs, traditions, laws and so on of the Rome of his time and how he set about reforming and remodelling them so decisively.

It’s impossible to summarise the achievements of the longest-serving and most impressive Roman emperor, Augustus (reigned 31 BC to 14 AD), without ending up repeating long Wikipedia article. Instead, here is an impressionistic list of themes and achievements which emerge from Adrian Goldsworthy’s impressive book.

Peace

Above all everyone wanted peace after decades of chaos, war, disruptions to trade, impressment, deaths and injuries and proscriptions. Once Antony was defeated and had committed suicide (in 30 BC), Goldsworthy repeatedly describes the widespread desire for peace to explain the absence of opposition to let alone rebellion against Augustus (pages 199, 200, 211, 282).

Temple of Janus Germinus

The Janus Geminus (to reflect his twin faces) was a small shrine that held an archaic bronze statue of the god, said to have been dedicated by Numa, Rome’s second king (Plutarch, Life, XX.1-2). Pliny (XXIV.33) relates that its fingers were arranged to indicate the 355 days of the year. Ovid in his Fasti, I.99 says that one hand held a key (as the god of entrances), the other, a staff (to signify his authority and as a guide).

The doors of the Janus Geminus were opened to indicate that Rome was at war and closed during times of peace. Since the time of Numa, the doors were said to have been closed only in 235 BC, after the first Punic war; in 30 BC, after the battle of Actium; and several times during the reign of Augustus (for example, when the Cantabrians were defeated in 25 BC, supposedly ending the Spanish wars (pages 200, 239)

Victories

For Romans peace came through conquest and victory: it was always an imposed peace. Thus, having defeated and eliminated Mark Antony and become ruler of the entire Roman Empire, Augustus still had work to do. Campaigns followed:

  • Egypt was formally annexed to the empire
  • to pacify the north-west of Spain (pages 241 to 245, 254 to 255), final embers stamped out in 19 BC (p.322)
  • Illyria (pages 174 to 178)
  • the Alps, pages 339 to 341 (surprising it took the Romans so long to pacify their own back yard)

Parthia

The Romans never defeated the Parthians. A great achievement was a negotiated settlement with the great Parthian Empire which resulted in the return of the legionary standards lost by Crassus at Carrhae in 53 and then by Antony in 36. This was painted as a great victory. The compliant senate voted Augustus even more honours and a triumph (all of which he rejected). Coins were minted showing the standards, and they are depicted on the breastplate Augustus is wearing in the most famous statue of him, the one found at the suburb of Prima Porta (p.303).

Statue of Augustus wearing a breastplate depicting the return of the legionary standards from the Parthians

Army reorganisation

Augustus reorganised the army, reducing it from 60 or so legions down to 28 (p.247 to 256) making it more professional. Huge scope was opened up for posts for aristocrats and promotions and Octavius made sure to retain control of all appointments and ensure all senior officers were loyal to him.

In 13 BC he carried out more reforms, regularising the period of service for a legionary to 16 years and defining other periods and terms of service. He made auxiliary units more permanent. Many of them were now raised from the provinces, from Gaul, Spain or Thrace and service in them allowed provincial aristocrats the opportunity to acquire citizenship and work their way into the hierarchy of empire (p.349). He laid down regulations for the constructions of camps and forts (p.366).

Building works

Augustus completed Julius Caesar’s forum with its massive temple to Venus Genetrix at one end. Then designed and built his own forum with a massive temple to Mars Ultor, in 2 BC and dedicated to the god Mars in his guise as avenger.

Mausoleum

The huge circular mausoleum Augustus built for himself and his family was one of the first building projects he began after victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. It consisted of several concentric rings of earth and brick, faced with travertine on the exterior, and planted with cypresses on the top tier. It measured 295 feet in diameter and 137 feet in height. He built it for himself but many of his close family were to find resting places there before him, including: Marcus Claudius Marcellus (son of Octavia Minor), Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (Augustus’s right-hand man and husband of Julia the Elder), Nero Claudius Drusus (son of Livia Drusilla), Octavia Minor (sister of Augustus), Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar (his grandsons).

The saepta

The saepta or ‘sheepfolds’ were the traditional structures on the Campus Martius which hosted elections. Augustus turned them from wooden into permanent stone structures. Year after year the whole area was transformed into a giant monument to his glory (p.357). Agrippa, in effect Augustus’s number two, accumulated a vast fortune and spent it nearly as lavishly as his master on public works. The diribitorium was a public voting hall situated on the Campus Martius in Ancient Rome. Agrippa paid for the building called the Diribitorium, where votes were counted by diribitores (election officials). It was begun by Marcus Agrippa but after his death in 12 BC was finished by Augustus (p.385).

The Pantheon

The Pantheon was a part of the complex created by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa on the Campus Martius in 29 to 19 BC, which included three buildings aligned from south to north: the Baths of Agrippa, the Basilica of Neptune, and the Pantheon. It was rebuilt by Hadrian in the 120s AD, it was later adapted to be a Catholic church and so well maintained, thus ending up being the best preserved building we have from ancient Rome.

The provinces

The restoration of peace led to the revival of trade and, wherever he went or had influence, Augustus encouraged local elites to mimic him and build, refurbishing and improving their cities and towns, building theatres, reviving festivals and games. He dangled offers of citizenship or administrative posts as an incentive to provincial leaders (p.292).

Large numbers of people resident in provincial towns and cities won citizenship. The benefits of Roman citizenship came to be seen as valuable, itself an incentive for powerful or aspiring men to keep the peace in order to gain it (p.298). Every town and city in the empire was encouraged to be rebuilt along Roman lines, in a grid system, with roads converging on an open forum (p.343).

Roman roads

One of the most clichéd achievements of the Romans was building roads. Goldsworthy describes the creation of a network of roads across Gaul, linking the new-look Roman towns (p.341). Good, navigable roads which didn’t flood or wash away in winter led to hugely expanded trade and thus prosperity (pages 342 to 343).

Colonies

Colonae is the term the Romans gave to new settlements or towns. They had been building them for centuries, mainly as places to house the large numbers of men continually being demobilised from their armies. Augustus increased the number of colonies or new towns built in newly pacified Spain and Gaul, including the forebears of modern Zaragoza and Merida (p.347). Most Gauls had lived in defendable hilltop settlements. Now they came down off their hills and lived in towns joined by direct, well-maintained roads. Trade thrived. Prosperity (p.348).

Tours

To aid the process Augustus spent more of his rule away from Rome than in it, systematically touring all the provinces. Anecdotes suggest he went out of his way to make himself very accessible to all who had a grievance or issue (p.324). In his absence from Rome he left administration to loyal subordinates such as Agrippa (p.353) and Statilius Taurus. He increased the grain dole (p.224).

The constitution

The restoration of the constitution is a massive and subtle subject as Augustus spent 45 years restoring then tinkering with the constitution to make it appear as if the Republic had been restored while maintaining a firm grip on power. Thus he restored the post of consul and held annual elections for the consulship, as per tradition – except that he made sure that he was always elected one of the consuls.

In 27 BC, Octavian made a show of returning full power to the Roman Senate and relinquishing his control of the Roman provinces and their armies. But he retained control of the ‘grand provincial command’ whose importance Goldsworthy explains in detail (p.381).

The consulships

Augustus held one of the consulships every year from 31 BC to 23 BC, when he entered his eleventh consulship.

The senate

In practical terms Augustus tried to reform the senate, reducing its numbers from the unwieldy 1,000 it had grown to. Augustus tried to separate senators from the equestrian class with which they overlapped and imposed a minimum wealth requirement of 1 million sestercii (p.320).

He struggled with the problem that quite a few scions of the great houses didn’t even want to sit in the senate but were quite happy with their wealthy lives as equites (p.353). In 9 BC Augustus had another go at reform, determining that the senate would meet on fixed dates, ensuring they didn’t overlap with court cases and other obligations, and requiring all senators to attend, anyone absent being fined. But bribery and corruption persisted. In the consul elections of 8 BC, all the candidates including the winners bribed voters on such a heroic scale that Augustus insisted in future all candidates must pay a deposit which they would forfeit on conviction of bribery (p.383).

His tinkering with various rules and initiatives to get just what he wanted, and the continual stymying of his reforms by a corrupt ruling class, remind me of Oliver Cromwell’s forlorn attempts to get just the right kind of House of Commons, free but also high-minded and responsible.

Titles

He began with the name Gaius Octavius, son of Caius Octavius. When Julius Caesar’s will was read in March 44 he immediately took his adoptive father’s name to become Gaius Julius Caesar, with or without the legacy name Octavianus. From 38 BC at the latest, Octavian officially dropped all of his names except Caesar and began using the victory title imperator (‘commander’) in place of the traditional Roman forename, so Imperator Caesar. In 27 BC the Senate granted him the additional name ‘Augustus’, making Imperator Caesar Augustus.

Awards

Previous Romans were awarded days of thanksgiving when they secured a victory. Augustus’s were off the scale. He was awarded a staggering 51 thanksgivings, adding up to a total of 590 days (p.357).

The month of August

Julius Caesar had reformed the Roman month which had, until then, consisted of ten months (hence the way in our English months September, October, November and December, the first syllable indicates the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th months, respectively). Because the old calendar only contained 355 days it quickly went out of sync with the seasons and required the addition of an extra, or intercalary, month every so often. Caesar consulted astronomers and devised a new calendar of 365 days, adding a few days to each month and inventing an entirely new month, modestly named after himself, which gives us the English ‘July’ (French ‘Juillet’, Spanish ‘Julio’). His reforms came into force on 1 January 45 BC.

Augustus followed in his adoptive father’s footsteps and received yet another honour from the Senate, the renaming of a month in his name. Some wanted him to have September, the month he was born in. But Augustus chose the sixth month or Sextilis, when he had first been elected consul and won many of his victories. So in 8 BC the month was renamed August and remained so in European calendars including English.

Religion

Augustus embarked on a policy of rebuilding or beautifying temples and reviving, restoring and encouraging the practice of traditional rituals, not only in Rome but throughout Italy and the provinces.

Games and festivals

For example, he created the rather factitious ludi saecularii, supposedly to celebrate the return of what the Romans called ‘the Great Year’ (p.330).

Poets

Augustus prided himself on his association with only the greatest writers. During his rule flourished the three greatest Roman poets:

  • Publius Vergilius Maro, known in the English-speaking world as Virgil (70 to 19 BC)
  • Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known in the English-speaking world as Horace (65 to 8 BC)
  • Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō, a generation younger, known as Ovid (43 BC to 18 AD)

Goldsworthy devotes a significant passage to describing Virgil and then summarising the themes and importance of his great poem, The Aeneid. This is an epic poem telling the story of the flight of Prince Aeneas from Troy after it had been captured by the Greeks at the climax of the Trojan War. It describes his extended dalliance with Dido Queen of Carthage, before piety and duty forces him to abandon her and sail on to Italy, where he is caught up in a series of brutal conflicts with various tribes before conquering them all to establish Alba Longa, the settlement near what would, centuries later, become Rome and to which Roman antiquarians attributed the origin of their city and race (pages 307 to 317).

Breeding

Augustus became concerned about the disastrous impact the civil wars and the proscriptions had than on aristocratic and knightly families, with many lines going extinct. Therefore he passed the lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus to encourage the upper classes to reproduce, granting benefits to fathers of three or more children and penalising the unmarried or childless (p.325).

Succession

This is the issue which Mary Beard identifies as the single biggest political problem for the emperors: who was to succeed? (See my summary of her discussion of the various options.)

What the reader of this book notices is that the first hundred pages describe the traditional republican constitutional forms of consuls and tribunes and so on; the middle 200 describe how Augustus attempted to keep the façade of all these elections and structures, while continuing to hold all the reins of power; how he vehemently denied in the 20s that he was grooming any of his close family to ‘succeed’ because he was not a monarch.

But how, during the last 100 pages or so, the issue of Augustus’s family becomes more and more pressing, with the narrative focussing more and more on the marriages of his extended family and the health or otherwise of his various stepsons and nephews and so on.

In his endeavours to ensure a smooth transition of power Augustus was ill-fated and the labyrinthine complexities of his extended family and the bad luck and/or conspiracies among them are amply recorded in Robert Graves’s best-selling novels I, Claudius and Claudius the god.

Livia

Goldsworthy devotes extended passages to profiling Augustus’s wife, Livia (e.g. pages 377 to 379). She was his third wife. There was a whiff of scandal about their marriage, because she had first been married to Tiberius Claudius Nero around 43 BC, and they had had two sons, Tiberius and Drusus. Octavian saw her, liked her, and compelled her to divorce Nero and marry him in 38 BC.

When the Senate granted Octavian the title Augustus, Livia automatically became Augusta, prototype of all future empresses. Just as Augustus used propaganda tools to depict himself as the ideal Roman male and ruler, Livia was portrayed as the ideal Roman matron.

Rumour surrounded her machinations to get her eldest son Tiberius into position as heir to Augustus, and it’s these rumours Robert Graves used as the central theme of I Claudius. Tiberius was fast-tracked through military education and the old cursus honorem (p.336). Through Tiberius she was grandmother of the emperor Claudius, great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and the great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero.

She liked dwarves and freaks (p.378).

Heirs

Augustus’s ultra-reliable number two, Agrippa, was married to Augustus’s daughter, Julia (p.321). A dynasty was taking shape (p.322).

It is a small indicator of the shift in emphasis that the last ever old-style triumph was awarded to the Younger Balbus in 19 BC. Thereafter, triumphs were only awarded to members of the imperial family (p.305). Something similar happened a few years later when, in 12 BC Augustus had himself appointed head priest or pontifex maximus. No civilian was ever to hold this post again. From now till the fall of Rome in 410 AD this title and post was only held by the emperor (p.350).

Augustus arrogated unprecedented powers and privileges to himself (p.356) but there were never any indications he planned to nominate a sole heir (p.359). He appears to have expected to be succeeded by a college of colleagues, all with advanced power but who would work collaboratively. In other words, he gave no indication of realising that what would happen would be rule by a series of single individuals, kings in all but name (p.360).

Thoughts

Augustus is an awesome figure. Rarely can one man have had such an impact on an entire civilisation.

Reading the book is overwhelming because of the extraordinarily hectic nature of the times Gaius Octavianus lived through and mastered, and then the dizzying list of his achievements.

But it left me with one dominating thought: The book is like a doorway between two eras. For the first hundred pages we are solidly in the world of the Roman Republic, with its complex constitution, its squabbling senate, its fiercely competitive elections to the consulship and the tribunate and the jostling for power of a host of larger-than-life characters including Crassus, Caesar, Pompey, Cicero and so on.

But in the last 100 pages (380 to 480) we are in a completely different world, one of peace and stability, where elections continue but are essentially hollow, where no public figures at all come anywhere close to the wielding the power and significance of Augustus, and where, increasingly, the only people of interest are the members of his own family: Livia, Drusus, Tiberius, Julia and so on.

By around page 390 all his old friends have died off – Agrippa, Maecenas, Virgil and Horace – the old generation has departed, and the narrative becomes evermore focused on the palace intrigues and manoeuvring over who will replace the princeps when he finally dies. These are now the palace intrigues of an emperor in all but name, completely unlike anything which existed under the Republic.

So reading the book gives a slightly vertiginous, Alice-through-the-looking-glass feel, of transitioning the reader, without you quite realising it, without you being aware precisely when it happens, from one world to another, completely different one.

I wonder if people at the time were aware that they were living through such a fundamental transition, or whether it’s just the effect of reading a modern account which, by its nature, tends to focus on what changed and maybe neglects the vast continuities which most people probably experienced in their day-to-day lives.

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor is a thorough, solid, continually interesting and, in the end, rather mind-bending read.


Credit

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

Roman reviews

The Life of Augustus by Suetonius

Suetonius’s life of Augustus has 101 chapters compared with his life of Julius Caesar with 89.

(1) Traditional connection of the Octavian family with the town of Velitrae. Tradition that a forebear was in the middle of sacrificing to Mars when a neighbouring tribe attacked so that he grabbed the innards out of the fire half burned [no idea what this really means], giving rise to a tradition of sacrificing that way in the town.

(2) The family was of the equestrian class i.e. neither rich and venerable patricians nor plebeians. Generations back the family split into two branches, one of which sought high office, Octavius’s branch less so. His father was the first family member to become a senator. Mark Antony taunted him that his great-grandfather was a freedman and rope-make, while his grandfather was a money-changer.

(3) His father Gaius Octavius was a man of wealth and repute who served well as governor of Macedonia, defeating Rome’s enemies in battle, meting out justice to Rome’s allies. Marcus Cicero, in a letter to his brother, Quintus, who was serving as proconsular governor​ of Asia, advises him to imitate his neighbour Octavius.

(4) On the way back from Macedonia he died suddenly leaving a wife, Atia, and three children, one by his first wife, 2 by Atia. Atia was the daughter of Marcus Atius Balbus and Julia, sister of Gaius Caesar. Balbus came from a family with many senators in its history and was closely connected on his mother’s side with Pompey the Great.

(5) Augustus was born just before sunrise on the ninth day before the Kalends of October [i.e. 23 September] in the consul­ship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius [63 BC], at the Ox‑Heads, a small property in the Palatine quarter, where there is now a shrine, built shortly after his death.

(6) A small room like a pantry is shown to this day as the emperor’s nursery in his grandfather’s country-house near Velitrae, which is now said to be haunted.

(7) His names In his infancy he was given the surname Thurinus in memory of the home of his ancestors. Mark Antony uses the name as an insult when the two fell out in the 30s BC. In 44 BC he took the name of Gaius Caesar by the will of his great-uncle, Julius. In 27 BC he was awarded the surname Augustus, on the motion of Munatius Plancus, Augustus being a made-up name because sacred places and those in which anything is consecrated by augural rites are called ‘august’ from the increase (auctus) in dignity or authority.

Suetonius uses the name Augustus throughout.

(8) He lost his father when he was 4. At 12 he delivered a funeral eulogy to his grandmother Julia. When his uncle went to Spain to engage the sons of Pompey, although he had hardly recovered from a severe illness, he followed over roads beset by the enemy with only a very few companions and so endeared himself to Caesar, who soon formed a high opinion of his character.

Suetonius gives a fantastically abbreviated account of Augustus’s career in order to get onto the character stuff: so, after Caesar defeated the last of the Pompeyans in Spain, thinking peace had arrived for good, Augustus devoted himself to study in Greece. When he learned that his great-uncle had been assassinated, and he had been named his heir, he pondered whether to appeal to the nearest legions, eventually deciding against it. He returned to Rome and entered upon his inheritance, in spite of the doubts of his mother and the strong opposition of his stepfather, the ex-consul Marcius Philippus. Then he levied armies and henceforth ruled the State, at first with Marcus Antonius and Marcus Lepidus, then with Antony alone for nearly 12 years, and finally by himself for 44. That’s it, that’s the complete summary of Augustus’s political career.

(9) “Having given as it were a summary of his life, I shall now take up its various phases one by one, not in chronological order, but by classes, to make the account clearer and more intelligible.” In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Michael Grant points out that Suetonius’s fondness for assigning things to categories reminds us that he wrote the lives of great grammarians (now lost). Very bookish, very librariany, this love of taxonomies.

He wages five civil wars which Suetonius oddly names after their decisive battles: Mutina (43 BC), Philippi (42), Perusia (40), Sicily and Actium (31).

(10) Augustus initially wanted to avenge his uncle [for some reason Suetonius insists on calling Caesar Octavius’s ‘uncle’ not his ‘great uncle’] by gaining a position of power such as tribune of the plebs and then leading forces against Brutus and Cassius. But he was blocked in all attempts by Mark Antony and so went over to the aristocrats’ party. He plotted to assassinate Antony but when the conspiracy was uncovered, raised veterans to protect himself. He was put in command of the army which he had raised, with the rank of propraetor, and bidden to join with Hirtius and Pansa, who had become consuls, in lending aid to Decimus Brutus.

(11) Both Hirtius and Pansa lost their lives in this war and there were persistent rumours that Augustus had them arranged their deaths in order to create vacancies in the consulship.

(12) But when Antony, after his flight north, found a protector in Marcus Lepidus, and realising that the rest of the leaders and armies were coming to terms with them, he abandoned the cause of the nobles without hesitation and entered negotiations.

(13) He now formed a league with Antony and Lepidus and they finished the war against Brutus and Cassius with the two battles of Philippi. He was not merciful. He sent Brutus’s head to be thrown at the foot of Caesar’s statue.

When the duties of administration were divided after the victory at Philippi, Antony undertook to restore order in the East, and Augustus to lead the veterans back to Italy and assign them lands in the municipalities. But he could please neither the veterans nor the landowners, since the latter complained that they were driven from their homes, and the former that they were not being treated as their services deserved.

(14) Dangerous incidents during the siege of Lucius Antonius in Perusia.

(15) After the capture of Perusia he took vengeance on many, meeting all attempts to beg for pardon or to make excuses with the one reply, “You must die.”

(16) Details of the war in Sicily against Pompey’s son, Sextus Pompeius.

(17) When the final breach with Antony came, despite numerous attempts to patch it up, in 32 BC Augustus had Antony’s will read out to the people in which he named his children by Cleopatra as his heirs. Suetonius briskly deals with the battle of Actium, the difficulties he had sending his fleet and troops back to Italy, then his journey with some forces to besiege Antony in Alexandria.

Although Antony tried to make terms at the eleventh hour, Augustus forced him to commit suicide, and viewed his corpse. He greatly desired to save Cleopatra alive for his triumph, and even had Psylli brought to her, to suck the poison from her wound, since it was thought that she had died from the bite of an asp.

The young Antony, the elder of Fulvia’s two sons, he dragged from the image of the Deified Julius, to which he had fled after many vain entreaties, and slew him. Caesarion, too, whom Cleopatra fathered on Caesar, he overtook in his flight, brought back, and put to death. But he spared the rest of the offspring of Antony and Cleopatra, and afterwards maintained and reared them according to their several positions, as carefully as if they were his own kin.

(18) He visited the shrine of Alexander and placed a golden crown in the tomb. He annexed Egypt as a Roman province and had troops clear out the canals from the Nile in order to make it a more efficient bread basket. He founded the city of Nicopolis close to the site of his victory at Actium.

(19) Half a dozen assassination attempts are foiled.

(20) He carried on but two foreign wars in person: in Dalmatia, when he was but a youth, and with the Cantabrians after the overthrow of Antony.

(21) He subdued Cantabria, Aquitania, Pannonia, Dalmatia, and all Illyricum, as well as Raetia and the Vindelici and Salassi, which are Alpine tribes. He put a stop to the inroads of the Dacians, slaying great numbers of them, together with three of their leaders, and forced the Germans back to the farther side of the river Albis. But he never made war on any nation without just and due cause and was far from desiring to increase his dominion or his military glory at any cost. He only took hostages where necessary and if the hostage-giving nation rebelled, did not execute them but sold them into slavery.

His moderation in this and other things prompted India and the Scythians to send friendly envoys. Friendship with the eternally troublesome Parthian Empire allowed Augustus to reclaim the standards lost by Crassus at the battle of Carrhae in 53, and by Antony’s lieutenants in 40 and 36 BC.

(22) He had the doors of the temple of Janus Quirinuse closed three times, having won peace on land and sea. He twice entered the city in an ovation, after the war of Philippi, again after that in Sicily, and celebrated three regular triumphs​, for his victories in Dalmatia, at Actium, and at Alexandria, on three successive days.

(23) He suffered but two severe and ignominious defeats, those of Lollius and Varus, both of which were in Germany. [At the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9 3 entire legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus were destroyed by Arminius, leader of the Cherusci.] It was said Augustus was so affected that for several months he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he would dash his head against a door, crying: “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!” And he observed the day of the disaster each year as one of sorrow and mourning.

(24) He was a strict disciplinarian. He dismissed the entire tenth legion in disgrace because they were insubordinate. If any cohorts gave way in battle, he decimated them, [had every tenth man, chosen by lot, executed].

(25) After the civil wars he never called any of the troops ‘comrades’ either in the assembly or in an edict but always ‘soldiers’, thinking the former term too flattering for the requirements of discipline, the peaceful state of the times, and his own dignity.

He thought the worst quality in a general or officer was haste and risk. Hence his favourite sayings: “More haste, less speed”; “Better a safe commander than a bold”; and “That is done quickly enough which is done well enough.”

(26) He held the consulship an unprecedented 13 times. The first time he bullied the Senate into granting it him when he was only 20. He held his second consul­ship 9 years later, and a third after a year’s interval. The rest up to the eleventh were in successive years, then a long interval of 17 years till his twelfth and 2 years till his thirteenth.

(27) He was for ten years a member of the triumvirate for restoring the State to order, and though he opposed his colleagues for some time and tried to prevent a proscription, yet when it was begun, he carried it through with greater severity than either of them.

While he was triumvir, Augustus incurred general detestation by many of his acts and Suetonius lists the times Augustus had nobles he suspected of treachery arrested, tortured or executed on the spot.

He received the tribunician power for life, and once or twice chose a colleague in the office for periods of five years each. He was also given the supervision of morals and of the laws for all time, and by the virtue of this position, although without the title of censor, he nevertheless took the census thrice.

(28) He twice seriously considered restoring the Republic but both times was given pause at the thought of what would happen to himself, and by what new dissensions would immediately break out. [The same kind of argument which kept Oliver Cromwell in power.]

He undertook such sustained building work that in later life he liked to say he had found Rome built of brick and left it made of marble.

(29) A list of the notable buildings he had erected, and he encouraged other rich citizens to build new buildings or restore old ones.

(30) He reorganised the city into wards, organised fire watches, widened the channel of the Tiber to prevent floods and had all the approach roads to Rome widened and improved.

(31) After assuming the post of pontifex maximus on the death of Lepidus he collected whatever prophetic writings of Greek or Latin origin were in circulation and burned them. He restored Julius’s reform of the calendar and had the month Sextilis renamed after him, August, because it was the month when he held his first consulship and won his most famous victories.

He increased the number and importance of the priests. He increased the privileges of the Vestal virgins. He revived ancient rites which had fallen into disuse, such as the augury of Safety, the office of Flamen Dialis, the ceremonies of the Lupercalia, the Secular Games and the festival of the Compitalia. He provided that the Lares of the Crossroads should be crowned twice a year, with spring and summer flowers.

(32) To put a stop to brigandage, he stationed guards of soldiers wherever it seemed advisable, inspected the workhouses, and disbanded all guilds, except such as were of long standing and formed for legitimate purposes. He reformed the system of juries.

(33) In his administration of justice he was both highly conscientious and very lenient. [As so many have commented, it was as if the bloodshed of the civil wars and the proscriptions led to a psychological backlash, in which he tried to erase his former brutality.]

(34) He revised existing laws and enacted some new ones, for example, on extravagance, on adultery and chastity, on bribery, and on the encouragement of marriage among the various classes of citizens.

(35) Membership of the Senate had swollen to over 1,000 due to bribery and other reasons. He reduced it to 600, partly by having them vote worthy candidates, partly by his own intervention. He had sittings regularised to twice a month.

(36) Description of other administrative innovations designed to save money and avoid corruption.

(37) To enable more men to take part in the administration of the State, he devised new offices: the charge of public buildings, of the roads, of the aqueducts, of the channel of the Tiber, of the distribution of grain to the people, as well as the prefecture of the city, a board of three for choosing senators, and another for reviewing the companies of the knights whenever it should be necessary.

(38) He was generous in honouring military achievement for he had regular triumphs​ voted to over 30 generals. To enable senators’ sons to gain an earlier acquaintance with public business, he allowed them to assume the broad purple stripe immediately after the gown of manhood and to attend meetings of the senate. And when they began their military career, he gave them not merely a tribunate in a legion, but the command of a division of cavalry as well.

(39) His review of the knightly class, scolding and reprimanding many for bad behaviour.

(40) He revised conditions of the knightly class. He reviewed the way the free grain dole was distributed. He tried to abolish the widespread bribery at elections.

He was very hesitant to grant full Roman citizenship on foreigners. He made careful provision as to the number, condition, and status of slaves who were manumitted.

He wished to promote traditional forms of dress and directed the aediles not to allow anyone to appear in the Forum or its neighbourhood who wasn’t wearing a toga and a cloak.

(41) He increased the property qualification for senators, requiring 1,200,000 sesterces instead of 800,000. He loaned money at zero interest to people who needed it. He paid for the grain distribution in times of scarcity.

(42) But he was strict about acts of generosity and got cross when the people demanded more than he had promised.

(43) He surpassed all his predecessors in the frequency, variety, and magnificence of his public shows. If anything rare and worth seeing was ever brought to the city, it was his habit to make a special exhibit of it in any convenient place on days when no shows were appointed. For example, a rhinoceros in the Saepta, a tiger on the stage and a snake of fifty cubits in front of the Comitium.

(44) Reforms to rules surrounding the theatre, shows, gladiatorial combats, athletics competitions and so on.

(45) Games He didn’t attend all the games but when he did, he made a point of giving them his full attention, unlike Julius who was publicly criticised for answering correspondence and working during the show. He improved conditions for athletes. It appears that actors were legendarily lawless and he had some severely punished. For example, Pylades was expelled from the city and from Italy as well, because by pointing at him with his finger​ he turned all eyes upon a spectator who was hissing him.

(46) Population He increased the population of Italy by creating 28 new colonies. He paid for new buildings throughout. To keep up the supply of men of rank and induce the commons to increase and multiply, he admitted to the equestrian military career​ those who were recommended by any town. As he did his rounds of towns and districts he paid all who had had legitimate children 1,000 sesterces for each child.

(47) Provinces He assigned to himself rule of the stronger provinces; the others he assigned to proconsular governors selected by lot. Cities which had treaties with Rome but were on the road to ruin through their lawlessness, he deprived of their independence. He relieved others that were overwhelmed with debt, rebuilt some which had been destroyed by earthquakes, and gave Latin rights​ or full citizen­ship to all who could point to services rendered the Roman people.

(48) Foreign kingdoms He restored the kingdoms of which he gained possession by the right of conquest to those from whom he had taken them or joined them with other foreign nations. He encouraged dynastic intermarriages. He appointed guardians to the children of kings and had some brought up with his own.

(49) Reforms to the administration and pay of the army.

(50) Personal seal In dispatches and private letters he used as his seal first a sphinx, later an image of Alexander the Great, and finally his own image carved by Dioscurides.

(51) Clemency The evidences of his clemency and moderation are numerous and strong. He was content to let people speak ill of him, at dinner parties and such, confident they wouldn’t actually do anything.

[It is faintly miraculous the way the history of the Republic from about 100 BC to Augustus’s realm was continually riven by dissension and people supporting rival great men…and then all such talk just disappears.]

(52) When the people did their best to force the dictator­ship upon him, he knelt down, threw off his toga from his shoulders and with bare breast begged them not to insist.

(53) Lord He angrily refused the title of dominus or Lord. As consul he commonly went through the streets on foot, and when he was not consul, generally in a closed litter. His morning receptions were open to all, including the common people, and he met the requests of those who approached him with great affability, jocosely reproving one man because he presented a petition to him with as much hesitation “as he would a penny to an elephant.”

He was a highly effective socialiser: On the day of a meeting of the senate he greeted all the members in the House​, calling each man by name without a prompter and when he left the House he took leave of them in the same manner. He exchanged social calls with many and attended all their birthdays.

(54) Some senators cheeked him or made slighting remarks but no one suffered for their freedom of speech or insolence.

(55) He was relaxed about anonymous lampoons and satires.

(56) When he voted for officials he did so in his tribe as an ordinary citizen. He made sure all his friends and contacts were subject to the law. He even appeared in court and allowed himself to be cross questioned.

(57) As a result of this phenomenally wise rule he was immensely popular and regularly voted titles and given feasts and festivals by all classes of citizen.

(58) He was offered the title Father of His Country by popular acclaim and the Senate and graciously accepted it.

(59) A statue was erected to his doctor, Antonius Musa. Some of the Italian cities made the day on which he first visited them the beginning of their year. Many of the provinces, in addition to temples and altars, established quinquennial games​ in his honour.

(60) His friends and allies among the kings each in his own realm founded a city called Caesarea.

(61) Now Suetonius turns to consider his personal and domestic life.

(62) Three wives 1. When he became reconciled with Antony after their first quarrel, and their troops begged that the rivals be further united by some tie of kinship, he married Antony’s stepdaughter Claudia, daughter of Fulvia by Publius Clodius, although she was barely of marriageable age; but because of a falling out with his mother-in‑law Fulvia, he divorced her before they had begun to live together.

2. Shortly afterwards he married Scribonia, who had been married before to two ex-consuls, and was a mother by one of them. He divorced her also, “unable to put up with her shrewish disposition,” in his own words on the same day that she gave birth to his daughter, Julia.

3. And on that same day married Livia Drusilla, taking her from her husband Tiberius Nero, although she was with child at the time; and he loved and esteemed her to the end without a rival (although with numerous other sexual partners, see below).

(63) Children i.e. one daughter By Scribonia he had a daughter Julia, by Livia no children at all. He gave Julia in marriage first to Marcellus, son of his sister Octavia and hardly more than a boy, and then after his death to Marcus Agrippa, prevailing upon his sister to yield her son-in‑law to him. At this point the family tree of Augustus and Livia’s families, various children, grandchildren and adopted children becomes increasingly complicated.

(64) His grandchildren and very close supervision of them.

(65) Bad family Despite all his precautions Fortune intervened to screw up his family. He found the two Julias, his daughter and granddaughter, guilty of every form of vice and banished them. He lost grandsons Gaius and Lucius within the span of 18 months, the former dying in Lycia, the latter at Massilia. He then publicly adopted his third grandson Agrippa but soon disowned him because of his low tastes and violent temper.

Julia He exiled his daughter to the island of Pandataria where he denied her the use of wine and every form of luxury. No man, bond or free, was allowed to come near her without his permission, and then not without being informed of his stature, complexion, and even of any marks or scars upon his body. He frequently lamented having been inflicted with such daughters and wives.

(66) Friends He had few friends but was extremely loyal to those. Suetonius names two who he was forced to hand over to the authorities when it was discovered they were conspiring. He was very sensitive to friends’ death bed comments, or comments written in wills (which Romans often used to vent their true feelings, especially about rulers, once they were dead).

(67) Freedmen and slaves He had close friends among his freedmen but was severe with anyone who broke bounds:

  • he forced Polus, a favourite freedman of his, to take his own life, because he was convicted of adultery with Roman matrons
  • he broke the legs of his secretary Thallus for taking five hundred denarii to betray the contents of a letter
  • when the tutor and attendants of his son Gaius took advantage of their master’s illness and death to commit acts of arrogance and greed in his province, he had them thrown into a river with heavy weights about their necks

(68) Gay In young manhood many accusations that he was gay.

(69) Adultery His widespread adultery. He took the wife of an ex-consul from her husband’s dining-room before his very eyes into a bed-chamber, and brought her back to the table with her hair in disorder and her ears glowing. Mark Antony claimed his friends acted as his panders, and stripped and inspected matrons and well-grown girls, as if Toranius the slave-dealer were putting them up for sale.

(70) Vices The anecdote of the scandalous dinner of the twelve gods when Augustus and his circle dressed as, then behaved as, the gods and goddesses.

He was criticized as over fond of costly furniture and Corinthian bronzes. It was said some of the people proscribed in 43 BC were murdered so he could seize their bronzes. Sounds like the kind of gossip that always surrounds this kind of thing, compare and contrast with Sulla’s proscriptions.

(71) He was not greedy and freely distributed treasure he seized abroad. He was promiscuous, though: they say that even in his later years he was fond of deflowering maidens who were brought together for him from all quarters, even by his own wife.

He was open about his addiction to gaming and gambling, particularly dice.

(72) Temperate lifestyle Given his complete power and immense wealth he lived relatively simply, staying in one house in Rome, summer or winter, staying at other people’s houses, disliking grand palaces. He had the mansion built by his disgraced daughter Julia razed to the ground.

At his villa at Capreae he amassed a collection of the monstrous bones of huge sea monsters and wild beasts called the “bones of the giants”. These were fossils.

(73) Clothes He lived and dressed simply. He wore raised shoes to make him seem taller than he was.

(74) Dinner parties He gave dinner parties constantly, which weren’t that lavish or formal, at which he was a considerate host.

(75) Celebrations He celebrated festivals and holiday, sometimes with jokes and pranks, organising lotteries with wildly varying prizes.

(76) Eating He preferred plain food. He particularly liked coarse bread, small fishes, hand-made moist cheese, and green figs of the second crop. He would eat even before dinner, wherever and whenever he felt hungry.

(77) Alcohol He drank little, sometimes three swigs of a glass of wine and that was it. He would take a bit of bread soaked in cold water, a slice of cucumber, a sprig of young lettuce, or an apple with a tart flavour,​ either fresh or dried.

(78) Sleep He took a nap after lunch. After dinner he went back to his study to work. He slept 7 hours or less. He often woke up and called for a storyteller to speak till he fell asleep again. He hated getting up early. Due to his trouble sleeping he often nodded off during ceremonies or in his litter.

(79) Appearance He was unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life but wasn’t fussed about appearance, having his hair cut any whichway, not bothering whether his beard was shaved or trimmed. He had clear bright eyes in which he liked to think a sparkle of divinity shone and he liked it if people he stared at dropped their gaze as if before the glare of the sun.

His eyebrows met. His ears were of moderate size, and his nose projected a little at the top and then bent slightly inward.​ His complexion was between dark and fair. He was short of stature though you didn’t notice it because his body was perfectly proportioned.

(80) Health He was rather sickly: he was covered in spots, itched constantly and was not very strong in his left hip, thigh, and leg, and even limped slightly at times.

(81) Ailments He suffered from bladder stones, enlargement of the diaphragm, catarrh. He didn’t like the winter cold.

(82) Clothes In winter he wore an undershirt, a woollen chest-protector and wraps for his thighs and shins, four tunics and a heavy toga. He couldn’t endure the sun even in winter, and never walked in the open air without wearing a broad-brimmed hat, even at home. He travelled in a litter, usually at night.

(83) Exercise Riding, pass-ball, balloon-ball, running and leaping dressed in a blanket. He sought out street urchins to play dice with but abhorred dwarfs, cripples, and people of that sort, as freaks of nature and of ill omen.

(84) Speaking From early youth Augustus devoted himself eagerly and with utmost diligence to oratory and liberal studies. To avoid the danger of forgetting what he was to say, or wasting time in committing it to memory, he adopted the practice of reading everything from a manuscript. Even his conversations with individuals and the more important of those with his own wife Livia, he always wrote out and read from a note-book, for fear of saying too much or too little if he spoke offhand.

(85) Writings He wrote numerous works of various kinds in prose, most of which have perished [except for the blankly factual Res Gestae].

(86) Writing style He sought to write as clearly as possible, without the affectations of style common at the time.

(87) Suetonius itemises specific linguistic habits of Augustus.

(88) Orthography i.e. spelling. Augustus wasn’t strict or consistent, preferring to spell as words sounded, phonetically.

(89) Literature He was interested in Greek oratory and studied it but never became fluent in Greek. He gave every encouragement to the men of talent of his own age, listening with courtesy and patience to their readings, not only of poetry and history, but of speeches and dialogues as well.

[Suetonius doesn’t mention it, but the three most important Roman poets flourished under Augustus’s patronage, Virgil, Ovid and Horace.]

(90) Superstition When it thundered and lightninged he took refuge in an underground bunker because he was once being carried in a litter when lightning struck and killed the servant walking in front bearing a lantern, something he never forgot.

(91) Dreams Examples of dreams which saved Augustus’s life or in which he spoke to Jupiter.

(92) Auspices Certain auspices and omens he regarded as infallible. If his shoes were put on in the wrong way in the morning he considered it a bad sign. If there was a drizzle of rain when he was starting on a long journey by land or sea, he thought it a good omen.

(93) He treated with great respect such foreign rites as were ancient and well established, but held the rest in contempt.

(94) Omens Suetonius brings together all the omens surrounding his birth which hinted that he was to be a great man. No difference between him and Plutarch, similarly in thrall to superstitions, omens, auguries and signs:

  • The day he was born the conspiracy of Catiline was before the House, and his father Octavius arrived late because of his wife’s confinement. Then Publius Nigidius, as everyone knows, learning the reason for his tardiness and being informed also of the hour of the birth, declared that the ruler of the world had been born.
  • As soon as he began to talk, it chanced that the frogs were making a great noise at his grandfather’s country place; he bade them be silent, and they say that since then no frog has ever croaked there.
  • As the Deified Julius was cutting down a wood at Munda and preparing a place for his camp, coming across a palm tree, he caused it to be spared as an omen of victory. From this a shoot at once sprang forth and in a few days grew so great that it not only equalled the parent tree, but even overshadowed it. Moreover, many doves built their nests there, although that kind of bird especially avoids hard and rough foliage. Indeed, it was that omen in particular, they say, that led Caesar to wish that none other than his sister’s grandson should be his successor.

(95) As he was entering the city on his return from Apollonia after Caesar’s death, though the heaven was clear and cloudless, a circle like a rainbow suddenly formed around the sun’s disc, and straightway the tomb of Caesar’s daughter Julia was struck by lightning.

(96) Auguries of victory As he was on his way to Philippi, a Thessalian gave him notice of his coming victory on the authority of the deified Caesar, whose shade had met him on a lonely road. As he was walking on the shore the day before the sea-fight off Sicily, a fish sprang from the sea and fell at his feet. And so on…

(97) Omens of death Towards the end of his life the first letter of his name was melted from the inscription on one of his statues by a flash of lightning. This was interpreted to mean that he would live only a hundred days from that time, the number indicated by the letter C, and that he would be numbered with the gods, since aesar (that is, the part of the name Caesar which was left) is the word for god in the Etruscan tongue.

(98) His final journey to the island of Capri. On the sea journey he contracted diarrhea. Anecdotes of his last few days, accompanying Tiberius, attending games, joking at a dinner party. He at last took to bed in Nola.

(99) Last day On his last day he was attended by servants and friends. He passed away as he was kissing Livia, uttering these last words: “Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell,” thus blessed with an easy death such as he had always longed for.

(100) Funeral His body was escorted back to Rome. Details of his funeral, his cremation, burial in the Mausoleum. An ex-praetor who took oath that he had seen the form of the Emperor, after he had been reduced to ashes, on its way to heaven.

(101) His will, very detailed and specific, giving sums to Rome, to the praetorian guard, city cohorts and legionaries and other named individuals and groups. Its most important provision was appointing Tiberius his heir.

Summary

It can easily be seen that Suetonius skimps on Augustus’s military or political record – barely records most of it – in order to move onto what really interests him, which is the carefully categorised itemisation of Augustus’s qualities and attitudes.

And many readers just remember the most colourful anecdotes, like the rhinoceros and the elephant, breaking his secretary’s legs, having Roman matrons stripped naked for his inspection, or addressing his wife from written notes to avoid making mistakes. Suetonius encourages the quirks and oddities.


Related links

Roman reviews

Of Friendship by Francis Bacon

Bacon is a hugely enjoyable read and his pithy brevity is a welcome break from Cicero’s rambling verbosity.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was born in 1561 into an eminent family. His uncle was the Lord Cecil who became the first minister to Queen Elizabeth. Like Cicero he made a career at the bar and in politics, sitting as MP for various constituencies. He was helped up the ladder by the Earl of Essex so when the latter rebelled against Elizabeth in 1601, Bacon’s zealous prosecution of his former patron aroused much bad feeling.

When the old queen died and was replaced by James VI in 1603 Bacon’s ascent up what Disraeli called the slippery pole continued. He was knighted, became clerk of the Star Chamber, Attorney General, Privy Counsellor and Lord Keeper of the Seal, finally becoming Lord Chancellor.

It was at the height of his success, in 1621, that Bacon was charged in Parliament with receiving bribes in his various posts, was found guilty, fined, briefly imprisoned and barred from holding public office. The king let him hold on to his titles.

He had always been many-minded, interested in many aspects of the society of his day, and now was free to devote himself full time to writing. He had already written a number of long works, in the three areas of moral philosophy and theology; legal works; and proto-scientific works, and now he added to them.

In his ‘scientific’ works such as The Advancement and Proficience of Learning Divine and Human (1605) and the Novum Organum (1620) Bacon promoted a universal reform of knowledge by sweeping away the useless scholastic theology inherited from the Middle Ages and promoting forms of knowledge based on close examination of the real world using inductive reasoning.

Though he died in 1626 the influence of these calls for a comprehensive reform of human knowledge along experimental and scientific lines was highly influential for a century or more afterwards. Bacon was cited as a guiding spirit of the Royal Society founded under Charles II in 1660.

Bacon’s Essays

In contrast to these weighty tomes, his brief essays on miscellaneous subjects were for a long time seen as incidental frivolities. However, as time passed and the scientific worldview became more solidly embedded in intellectual life, his big works came to feel more and more dated – whereas the essays, with their shrewd insights into the realities of daily life, became steadily more popular. To quote the blurb on the back of the 1972 Everyman edition:

The Essays consist of reflections and generalisations, together with extracts from ancient writers and examples drawn from the author’s own experience, woven into counsels for the successful conduct of life and the management of men.

They are not intended to promote a rather abstruse philosophy (as Cicero’s essays are) but to be pithy and hard-headed, combining shrewd reflections with practical advice.

They are wonderfully short – many barely more than a page long – and contain entertaining and amusing formulations, some of which have gone on to become reasonably famous:

  • ‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer. (Of Truth)
  • Revenge is a kind of wild justice. (Of Revenge)
  • He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune. (Of Marriage and Single Life)
  • The stage is more beholding to love than the life of man. (Of Love)

He added to the essays throughout his life: the first edition of 1597 had just 10 essays, the second edition of 1612 had 38 essays and the third and final edition of 1625 had no fewer than 58.

Of Friendship

This is one of the longer essays, at 8 pages (the five essays before it all barely stretch to a page and a half).

By this stage of the late Renaissance there had been a good deal of writing about friendship, going back, arguably, to the Italian poet Petrarch’s discovery of Cicero’s letters in 1345. The topic of friendship became of central importance to what became known as humanism, strongly influenced by the huge figure of Dutch philosopher and Catholic theologian Erasmus (1466 to 1536).

All these precedents and the centrality of the concept to humanist’s notion of their selves and their project help to explain why the friendship essay is one of Bacon’s longest, but even here he applies his style of being as focused and pithy as possible.

Summary

A natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.

A crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.

In a great town friends are scattered; so that there is not that fellowship, for the most part, which is in less neighbourhoods.

True friends; without which the world is but a wilderness.

Whosoever in the frame of his nature and affections, is unfit for friendship, he taketh it of the beast, and not from humanity.

The essay is addresses three ‘fruits of friendship’.

1. The first or principal fruit of friendship is to bring ‘peace in the affections’. It is:

the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.

Friendship helps soften the violence of passions and emotions. It is psychologically beneficial:

No receipt [medicine] openeth the heart but a true friend to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.

That ‘kind of’ is very typical. Bacons finds thoughtful analogies, which shed interesting light on everyday topics.

He expands this thought by considering how great kings and princes have been so driven by the need for friendship that they have often raised ordinary people to be their companions or ‘favourites’ ‘which many times sorteth to inconvenience.’ I love Bacon’s Jacobean English.

There follows a long passage of examples from the ancient and modern world, namely:

  • Sulla’s promotion of the boy wonder general, Pompey
  • Julius Caesar’s friendship with Decimus Brutus, who went on to lure him to his death
  • Augustus’s promotion of his loyal lieutenant Agrippa
  • Tiberius’s promotion of Sejanus which led the Senate to devote a temple to Friendship
  • Septimius Severus and Plautianus

The point being that these rulers were among the most powerful the world has ever since but accounted their lives incomplete unless they had an intimate confidant to ‘supply the comfort of friendship’.

By contrast he briefly summarises the experiences of Commineus (Philippe de Commines, 1447 to 1511, writer and diplomat in the courts of Burgundy and France) under two rulers, Charles Duke of Burgundy and King Louis XIII, who did not confide their worries, were very secretive, thus impairing their judgement and giving themselves much torment. The gnawing worries which a man without friends subjects himself to can be summarised:

Those that want friends to open themselves unto are cannibals of their own hearts.

2. The second fruit of friendship is ‘support of the judgment’; that it has a comparable effect on the rational faculties of the mind as on the emotional, namely helping to steady and clarify our thoughts. It:

maketh a fair day in the affections from storm and tempests…it maketh daylight in the understanding, out of darkness, and confusion of thoughts.

Sharing our thoughts with someone else helps us order and clarify them:

Whosoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up in the communicating and discoursing with another. He tosseth his thoughts more easily, he marshalleth them more orderly, he seeth how they look when they are turned into words. Finally, he waxeth wiser than himself, and that more by an hour’s discourse, than by a day’s meditation.

An hour’s conversation with a friend helps us sort out our thoughts more effectively than a day’s agonising by ourselves. The best kind of friend is one who gives you feedback and advice, but even without bonus, just the act of saying your thoughts out loud forces you to marshall your thoughts and, often, realise what you’re trying to say:

man learneth of himself and bringeth his own thoughts to light and whetteth his wits as against a stone.

As to benefiting from a friend’s advice:

The light that a man receiveth by counsel from another, is drier and purer, than that which cometh from his own understanding and judgment, which is ever infused, and drenched, in his affections and customs.

It’s a simple metaphor – dry good, wet bad – but unusual and memorable. Our own thoughts tend to flatter ourselves, be kind and compliant, in a way a good friend won’t.

Bacon then divides friendly advice into two types:

Counsel is of two sorts: the one concerning manners, the other concerning business.

Of the first kind:

Reading good books of morality is a little flat and dead. Observing our faults in others, is sometimes improper for our case. But the best receipt (best, I say, to work, and best to take) is the admonition of a friend.

‘Reading good books of morality being a little flat and dead’ certainly describes my experience of reading Cicero’s essays.

As for the second kind of friendly advice, concerning business:

the help of good counsel, is that which setteth business straight.

There is a risk here, of taking advice in fragments from different sources, in fact two risks: one, that it will be biased and reflect the counsellor’s concerns; the other that even if advice is well intentioned, if it doesn’t take into account the full situation of the advisee it might do more harm than good, like a doctor treating one symptom without knowing about the patent’s overall health.

Therefore rest not upon scattered counsels; they will rather distract and mislead, than settle and direct.

3. The third fruit is more multifarious: it is to giving ‘aid and bearing a part, in all actions and occasions’. When you consider how many things you cannot do for yourself, you realise that a friend is kind of ‘another you’, a doubling of your resources and skills. If a man dies with many cares and responsibilities unfinished (such as the care of children) a true friend is like another you, who will complete them.

A man hath a body, and that body is confined to a place; but where friendship is, all offices of life are as it were granted to him, and his deputy. For he may exercise them by his friend.

A man cannot promote himself and extol his merits without appearing to brag, but a friend can.

More subtly, we are limited in many of our communications with significant others by our position or role in relationship to them, whereas a friend can speak more freely, communicate more freely with them what we want to convey, because he or she is not so constrained:

A man cannot speak to his son but as a father; to his wife but as a husband; to his enemy but upon terms: whereas a friend may speak as the case requires, and not as it sorteth with the person.

At which point the essay abruptly ends. Compared with Cicero’s long essay on the same subject, it is short, practical, to the point, entirely lacking the elaborate scene-setting of Cicero’s debates, and unconstrained by Cicero’s tedious commitment to Stoic theology and his obsession with God, Morality, Reason, Wisdom and the rest of his junkyard of worthy but baseless abstractions.


Related link

Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Theatre

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

The Roman Emperors

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

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

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

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

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

32: Antony divorced Octavian’s sister. Partly in revenge, Octavian got hold of Antony’s will (it was stashed in the temple of the Vestal Virgins) and read it out in the Forum. He claimed it showed that Antony intended to bequeath his fortune to the twin sons he had just had by Cleopatra, and wished to be buried in Alexandria i.e. he had ceased to be a Roman patriot.

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

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

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

And Beard goes on to say that, after he had been awarded extraordinary powers to prosecute Rome’s wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Gnaeus Pompeius, known as Pompey the Great (106 to 48), had a strong claim to be ‘the first emperor’.

I imagine squabbling about who was the first emperor is a parlour game which can keep classicists entertained well into the early hours. For most of us non-experts, though, the empire started with the rise to complete power of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus, by 31 BC.

The emperors

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

Julio-Claudian dynasty (31 BC to 68 AD)

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

Year of 4 emperors

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

Flavian dynasty (69 to 98)

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

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96 to 192)

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

Year of the Five Emperors 193

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

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

Augustus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Individual emperors didn’t really matter

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

And:

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

A more thematic account

Following the chapter of Augustus, in this final stretch of her book, Beard drops all pretence at providing a chronological account and comes fully into the open with what she had probably wanted to do all along, which is take a more thematic approach to her subject.

Her addiction to asking clusters of rhetorical questions comes into its own as she sets out to discuss, not the emperors themselves, their rule and achievements and military conquests etc, but to ask questions about the themes and issues, ‘the structures, problems and tensions’ (p.336) raised by the first 200 years of imperial rule, about ‘the problems and tensions that Augustus bequeathed’ (p.413) in what amounts to a series of essays.

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

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

Problems with the imperial system

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

1. The succession

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

a) First born son

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

b) In the family

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

c) Adoption / assimilation (p.418)

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

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

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

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

d) Acclamation by army

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

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

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

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

2. Relations with the Senate

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

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

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

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

3. The emperor’s status

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

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

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

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

Summary

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


Credit

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

Roman reviews

Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

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

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

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

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

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

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

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

The Great Fire of Rome

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

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

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

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

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

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

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

Civil war

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

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

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

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

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

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

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

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

The Senate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wider context

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

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

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

Exhibits

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

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

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

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

The new archaeological finds include:

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

Statues

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

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

Roman Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nero the performer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

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

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

The Domus Aurea

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BC and AD

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

BP and the BM

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Byzantine Emperors 324-802

This blog post uses the timeline of Byzantine emperors from Wikipedia and then adds details and comments from John Julius Norwich’s book Byzantium: The Early Centuries.

Constantine I ‘the Great’ (324-337)

Son of the Augustus Constantius Chlorus and Helena. Proclaimed Augustus of the western empire upon the death of his father on 25 July 306, he became sole ruler of the western empire after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. In 324, he defeated the eastern Augustus Licinius and re-united the empire under his rule, reigning as sole emperor until his death. Constantine completed the administrative and military reforms begun under Diocletian, who had begun ushering in the Dominate period. Actively interested in Christianity, he played a crucial role in its development and the Christianization of the Roman world, through his convocation of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea. He re-founded the city of Byzantium as ‘New Rome’, popularly known as Constantinople.

Constantius II (337 – 361)

Second surviving son of Constantine I, he inherited the eastern third of Roman Empire upon his father’s death, becoming sole Roman Emperor from 353, after the overthrow of the western usurper Magnentius. Constantius’ reign saw military activity on all frontiers, and dissension between Arianism, favoured by the emperor, and the Orthodox supporters of the Nicene Creed. In his reign, Constantinople was given equal status to Rome, and the original church of Hagia Sophia was built. Constantius appointed Constantius Gallus and Julian as Caesars, and died on his way to confront Julian, who had risen up against him.

Constans I (337 – 350)

Third surviving son of Constantine I. Caesar since 333, he inherited the central third of Roman Empire upon his father’s death, and became sole emperor in the west following the death of Constantine II in 348. Constans was assassinated during the coup of Magnentius.

Julian ‘the Apostate’ (361 – 363)

Grandson of Constantius Chlorus and cousin of Constantius II. Proclaimed by his army in Gaul, Julian became legitimate Emperor upon the death of Constantius. He was killed on campaign against Sassanid Persia having failed to revive pagan religion.

Jovian (363 – 364)

Captain of the guards under Julian, elected by the army upon Julian’s death. Died on journey back to Constantinople.

Valentinian I (364 – 375)

An officer under Julian and Jovian, he was elected by the army upon Jovian’s death. He soon appointed his younger brother Valens as Emperor of the East. Died of cerebral haemorrhage.

Valens I (364 – 378)

A soldier of the Roman army, he was appointed Emperor of the East by his elder brother Valentinian I. Killed at the Battle of Adrianople.

Gratian (378 – 379)

Son of Valentinian I. Emperor of the West, he inherited rule of the East upon the death of Valens and appointed Theodosius I as Emperor of the East. Assassinated on 25 August 383 during the rebellion of Magnus Maximus.

Theodosius I ‘the Great’ (379 – 395)

Aristocrat and military leader, brother-in-law of Gratian who appointed him as emperor of the East. From 392 until his death sole Roman Emperor. Theodosius passed laws banning pagan religious practice, entrenching Christianity as the religion of the empire.

Arcadius (395 – 408)

On the death of Theodosius I in 395, the Roman Empire was permanently divided between the East Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire, and the West Roman Empire. Theodosius’ eldest son Arcadius became emperor in the East while his younger son Honorius became emperor in the West.

Theodosius II (408 – 450)

Only son of Arcadius. Succeeded upon the death of his father. As a minor, the praetorian prefect Anthemius was regent in 408–414. Died in a riding accident.

Marcian (450 – 457)

A soldier and politician, he became emperor after being wed by the Augusta Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II, following the latter’s death. Died of gangrene.

Leo I ‘the Thracian’ (457 – 474)

Of Bessian origin, Leo became a low-ranking officer and served as an attendant of the Gothic commander-in-chief of the army, Aspar, who chose him as emperor on Marcian’s death. He was the first emperor to be crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople. His reign was marked by the pacification of the Danube frontier and peace with Persia, which allowed him to intervene in the affairs of the western empire, supporting candidates for the throne and dispatching an expedition to recover Carthage from the Vandals in 468. Initially a puppet of Aspar, Leo began promoting the Isaurians as a counterweight to Aspar’s Goths, marrying his daughter Ariadne to the Isaurian leader Tarasicodissa (Zeno). With their support, in 471 Aspar was murdered and Gothic power over the army was broken.

Leo II (January – November 474)

Grandson of Leo I by Leo’s daughter Ariadne and her Isaurian husband, Zeno. He was raised to Caesar on 18 November 473. Leo ascended the throne after the death of his grandfather on 19 January 474. He crowned his father Zeno as co-emperor and effective regent on 10 November 474. He died shortly after, on 10 November 474.

Zeno (474 – 491)

As the leader of Leo I’s Isaurian soldiers, Zeno rose to comes domesticorum, married the emperor’s daughter Ariadne, took the name Zeno, and played a crucial role in the elimination of Aspar and his Goths. He was named co-emperor by his son on 9 February 474, and became sole ruler upon the latter’s death, but had to flee to his native country before Basiliscus in 475, regaining control of the capital in 476. Zeno concluded peace with the Vandals, saw off challenges against him by Illus and Verina, and secured peace in the Balkans by persuading the Ostrogoths under Theodoric the Great to migrate to Italy. Zeno’s reign also saw the end of the western line of emperors, with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476.

Basiliscus (475 – 476)

General and brother-in-law of Leo I, Basiliscus seized power from Zeno but was then deposed by him.

Anastasius I (491 – 518)

He was a palace official when he was chosen as husband and Emperor by the Empress-dowager Ariadne. Anastasius reformed the tax system and the Byzantine coinage and proved a frugal ruler, so that by the end of his reign he left a substantial surplus. His Monophysite sympathies led to widespread opposition, most notably the Revolt of Vitalian and the Acacian Schism. His reign was also marked by the first Bulgar raids into the Balkans and by a war with Persia over the foundation of Dara. He died childless.

Justin I (518 – 527)

Officer and commander of the Excubitors bodyguard under Anastasius I, he was elected by army and people upon the death of Anastasius I. Illiterate, he was much influenced by his nephew Justinian.

Justinian I ‘the Great’ (527 – 565)

Nephew of Justin I, possibly raised to co-emperor on 1 April 527. Succeeded on Justin I’s death. Attempted to restore the western territories of the Empire, reconquering Italy, North Africa and parts of Spain. Also responsible for the corpus juris civilis, or ‘body of civil law’ which is the foundation of law for many modern European nations. For John Julius Norwich Justinian was the last Roman emperor of Byzantium. (See my review of Robert Graves’s novel about his reign, Count Belisarius.)

Justin II (565 – 578)

Nephew of Justinian I, he seized the throne on the latter’s death with support of army and Senate. Became insane, hence in 573–574 under the regency of his wife Sophia, and in 574–578 under the regency of Tiberius Constantine.

Tiberius II Constantine (578 – 582)

Commander of the Excubitors, friend and adoptive son of Justin. Named Caesar and regent in 574. Succeeded on Justin II’s death.

Emperor Maurice (582 – 602)

Became an official and later a general. Married the daughter of Tiberius II and succeeded him upon his death. Named his son Theodosius as co-emperor in 590. Deposed by Phocas and executed on 27 November 602 at Chalcedon.

Phocas (602 – 610)

Subaltern in the Balkan army, he led a rebellion that deposed Maurice but turned out to be spectacularly brutal and cruel. Increasingly unpopular, he was deposed and executed by Heraclius.

Heraclius (610 – 641)

The eldest son of the Exarch of Africa, Heraclius the Elder. With his father and uncle launched a revolt against the unpopular Phocas in 609 and deposed him in October 610. Brought the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602–628 to a successful conclusion but was unable to stop the Muslim conquests; during his rule Muslim armies conquered of Syria (637), Armenia (639) and Egypt (639). In 638 Jerusalem fell after a two-year siege. The loss to the Muslims of Jerusalem, the holiest city to Christians, proved to be the source of much resentment in Christendom for centuries to come.

Heraclius officially replaced Latin with Greek as the language of administration. This act, for Norwich, makes Heraclius the first fully Greek Byzantine emperor. His military and administrative reforms created the backbone for the Byzantine Empire which helped it last another eight hundred years. He tried to solve the ongoing divisions caused by the monophysitic heresy by promoting a compromise theory, monothelitism, devised by Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople, although this only ended up causing more ill-feeling and excommunications. Nonetheless, according to Norwich, his record:

remains a magnificent one. Without his energy, determination and inspired leadership, Constantinople might well have fallen to the Persians – in which case it would almost inevitably have  been engulfed a few years later by the Muslim tide, with consequences for Western Europe that can scarcely be imagined. (Byzantium: The Early Centuries p.310)

Constantine III (February – May 641)

Born 612, eldest son of Heraclius by his first wife Fabia Eudokia. Named co-emperor in 613, he succeeded to the throne with his younger brother Heraklonas following the death of Heraclius. Died of tuberculosis, reputedly poisoned by scheming empress-dowager (i.e. Heraclius’s wife) Martina.

Heraklonas (February to September 641)

Born 626 in to Heraclius’ second wife Martina, named co-emperor in 638. Succeeded to the throne with Constantine III following the death of Heraclius. Sole emperor after the death of Constantine III, under the regency of Martina, but was forced to name Constans II co-emperor by the army. In September both Martina and Heraklonas were arrested: her tongue was cut out and his nose was slit, and they were sent into exile on Rhodes.

Constans II (641 – 668)

Born 630 the son of Constantine III. Raised to co-emperor in summer 641 i.e. aged just 11, after his father’s death, Constans became sole emperor after the forced abdication and exile of his uncle Heraklonas (see above). Baptized Heraclius, he reigned as Constantine, ‘Constans’ was his nickname. Constans’s 27-year reign was overshadowed by constant struggle against the fast-expanding Muslim caliphate. In 642 the seized Alexandria, later razing its defences to the ground and starting a new town at the head of the Nile Delta, which would become Cairo. In 649 the Muslims sacked Cyprus. In 654 they attacked Rhodes. In 655 they thrashed an imperial fleet off the coast of Lycia. In 663 Constans led an army across the Adriatic and into Italy to combat the Lombards. Having taken Rome he stripped it of its last remaining treasures and shipped them back to Constantinople. Then he moved on to Syracuse, which he made his base for the last five years of his reign. He was murdered by a slave while bathing.

Constantine IV (668 – 685)

Eldest of Constans II’s three sons. In 669 there was an army uprising against his rule which he put down and then slit the noses of his two younger brothers to render them unfit to rule (in Byzantine theory the king or basileus had to be free of physical blemishes). From 674 to 678 he held off a sea-based siege of Constantinople, not least by deploying Greek fire, and in doing so – according to John Julius Norwich – ‘saved Western civilisation’.

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – ad America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)

Not bad for a man who died of dysentery aged just 33.

Justinian II nicknamed ‘the Slit-nosed’ (685 – 695)

Son of Constantine IV, he was named co-emperor in 681 and became sole emperor upon Constantine IV’s death. He was a stern disciplinarian whose biggest act was to move an estimated quarter of million peasants and villagers from Thrace and northern Greece into Bithynia and the south coast of the Black Sea. He was also a ferocious taxer who made it plain he wanted to tax the aristocracy to extinction so when a military revolt broke out, they and other sections of the population gleefully welcomed Justinian’s overthrow in 695. He was dragged into the Hippodrome where his nose was slit, before being sent into exile at Cherson in Crimea.

The Twenty Years’ Anarchy (695–717)

Leontius (695–698)

A professional soldier from Isauria, Leontius led a military revolt against Justinian II, who was disfigured and sent into exile. In 698 the Muslims conquered Carthage and thus extinguished the entire Roman province of North Africa. Leontius had sent a fleet to defend the city but rather than return in disgrace, the sailors mutinied and elected a new king, the fleet returning to Constantinople and overthrowing Leontius.

Tiberius Apsimar (698–705)

Originally named Apsimar and of German origin, this is the admiral the failed Byzantine fleet elected their leader and king (and hastily gave the Roman-sounding name of Tiberius) and who led them back to the capital to overthrow Leontius. In the seven years of his reign he led military expeditions against the Muslims in Syria and Cilicia. His reign (and life) came to an end when the exiled Justinian II returned.

Justinian II ‘the Slit-nosed’ (705 – 711)

In exile Justinian did a deal with the Bulgar King Tervel to make the latter caesar in exchange for Slav troops. With these troops Justinian returned to Constantinople and seized power. The two usurpers – Leontius and Tiberius – were tracked down, put in chains, dragged round the Hippodrome in front of a jeering crowd, had their noses slit as Justinian had, and then were beheaded. Justinian then went on to inaugurate a reign of terror, torturing and executing his enemies.

In 709, for reasons which remain obscure, he sent an army to Ravenna – theoretically still a Byzantine ‘exarchate’ – round up the town’s dignitaries and packed them off to Constantinople where they were all executed except for the archbishop, who he had blinded, while his army went on the rampage in the captured city.

Then he launched an expedition against the Khazars who had taken Cherson, site of his exile, where a complicated sequence of events led to an exiled general named Bardanes rallying rebellious Byzantine forces and  sailing to take Constantinople, where a grateful populace greeted him. Justinian was captured a few miles outside of town and beheaded. His mother took his son, six-year-old Tiberius, to the sanctuary of a church across the Bosphorus but soldiers followed them there and slaughtered the little boy ‘like a sheep’. The Heraclian line of emperors had ended.

Philippicus Bardanes (711 – 713)

A general of Armenian origin, he led the forces from Cherson which deposed Justinian II, but turned out to be a ‘hopeless hedonist’ (p.347). The Bulgar King Tervel vowed to avenge his friend Justinian and marched his Slav army up to the walls of Constantinople. Philippicus called on the Opsikian Theme (a theme was a geographical and administrative unit of the empire) just across the Marmaris to send troops to help, but they refused and instead nominated a rival basileus. Philippicus was enjoying a siesta in his palace when soldiers broke in, seized him, dragged him to the Hippodrome where his eyes were put out.

Anastasius II (713 – 715)

Originally named Artemios, he was a chief secretary to Philippicus and proclaimed emperor by the soldiers who overthrew Philippicus. Anastasius set about repairing the walls defending Constantinople and, hearing the Muslims were once again on the war path, sent a pre-emptive force of Opsikian troops in a fleet to Rhodes. However the rebellious troops clubbed the head of the expedition to death and then returned to the capital, picking up an inoffensive tax collector named Theodosius along the way. After a six month siege, Constantinople submitted to the rebels and Anastasius, who had fled to Nicaea, was allowed to retire to a monastery in Thessalonica. In 719 he led a revolt against his successor but one, Leo III, but failed, and was executed by Leo.

Theodosius III (715 – 717)

A tax collector unrelated to any royal blood, Theodosius was proclaimed emperor by rebellious Opsikian troops, entering Constantinople in November 715. Two years later Leo the Isaurian, who was governor of a theme on the eastern border, led a revolt of soldiers on Constantinople and, after some negotiations with the Senate and Leo, Theodosius was allowed to abdicate and retire to a monastery in Ephesus.

End of the Twenty Years’ Anarchy

Leo III the Isaurian (717 – 741)

Norwich, in his history of Byantium, calls Leo ‘the saviour of the empire’. He rose through the ranks from very obscure origins (‘a Syrian peasant’) to become a general. Led a rebellion and secured the throne in spring 717. In the autumn a massive Muslim army and fleet besieged Constantinople but Leo had prepared well, the besieging army was decimated during a bitter winter of famine and disease, the survivors massacred by a Bulgarian army which attacked from the north, and then the retreating fleet was destroyed in a storm. Saved again.

Leo’s other big achievement was to inaugurate the movement known as Iconoclasm which set out to destroy all images of the human figure and face and which was to divide the empire and severely exacerbate the divide between the Western and Eastern churches. He had barely begun, by removing just one statue from one church, before he sparked a storm of protests across the city and the Greek East and from the pope in Rome. Despite protests, he pressed on and in 703 issued an imperial decree banning all religious images, demanding they be destroyed. Monks and priests fled east and west carrying their beloved icons and images concealed. The fleet and numerous military garrisons mutinied. There were riots in the major cities.

Some scholars attribute the rise of iconoclasm to the influence of the sternly anti-image Muslims who now controlled most of the former Roman territory in the East. But Norwich points out that the movement actually began as a charter launched by eastern bishops who thought they were challenging the increasingly fetishistic worship of icons in themselves. It had got to the stage where icons stood in as godparents during baptisms.

Constantine V (741 – 775)

The only son of Leo III. Constantine was made co-emperor in 720 and succeeded on his father’s death. He was leading a military expedition against the Muslims when he was attacked by Artabasdos, an old colleague of his father’s who had helped Leo seize the throne from Theodosius.

Artabasdos (741 – 743)

General who had helped Leo II to the throne and been given Leo’s sister’s hand in marriage, thus becoming brother-in-law to Leo and uncle to Constantine V, who he overthrew. For eighteen months he ruled in Constantinople making himself very popular by calling for the restoration of icons, which suddenly reappeared all over the city. Meanwhile Constantine had not been killed, but taken refuge in an eastern garrison filled with icon-supporters (the issue now split every level of Byzantine society) who marched behind him and they defeated Artabasdos in battle in Lydia.

Artabasdos fled to Constantinople which Constantine re-entered at the head of his army, dragged Artabasdos to the Hippodrome where he and his two sons were ritually blinded, their chief supporters executed or subjected to various mutilations. The Patriarch Anastasius was stipped naked, flogged, and paraded round the Hippodrome sitting backwards on a donkey.

Constantine V (741 – 775) part two

Constantine returned to power with renewed virulence against the icon-supporters, not least because they had helped overthrow him. He convened a church council which banned icons. He banned the use of the word ‘saint’ and ‘mother of God’ as blasphemous. He was particularly violent against monasteries, which had been growing in size and power. We have records of entire monasteries being sacked, the head monks having their beards doused in oil and set on fire, libraries burned to the ground. And this not by the Muslims, but by their fellow Christians.

Constantine campaigned continually against the Bulgars who threatened from the north but he was granted relief from the Muslim threat when, in 750, at the Battle of the Greater Zab River, the army of Caliph Marwan II was smashed by that of Abu al-Abbas al-Suffah and the Omayyad dynasty of Damascus came to an end. Power moved to the new Abbasid dynasty based in Baghdad, which was to be more interested in the East, in Persia, Afghanistan and Transoxiana than in Europe or Africa.

But in 751 Ravenna was taken by the Lombard king Aistulf and the last Byzantine foothold in north Italy was snuffed out forever. Constantine died of natural causes while on campaign against the Bulgars aged 56.

Leo IV ‘the Khazar’ (775 – 780)

Eldest son of Constantine V, co-emperor since 751, he succeeded upon his father’s death and was much influenced by his powerful, scheming wife Irene. When he died aged just 30, Irene made herself Regent for their son, Constantine VI. Irene was

scheming and duplicitous, consumed by a devouring ambition and an insatiable lust for power, she was to bring dissension and disaster to the Empire for nearly a quarter of a century (p.366)

Constantine VI (780 – 797)

Born in 771 and only child of Leo IV, co-emperor in 776, sole emperor upon Leo’s death in 780, he was for the next ten years under the regency of his mother, Irene of Athens.

Irene was a fierce supporter of icons and overthrew all Constantine V’s legislation, in 787 convening the Second Council of Nicaea which condemned the practice of iconoclasm and restored the veneration of icons to Christian practice. This also helped restore relations with the pope in Rome, the Western church having never condemned icons in the first place.

Her icon-support sparked repeated mutinies in the solidly iconoclast army. Anticipating a coup in 790 she placed her son – fast becoming a focal point for iconoclast rebellion – in prison. When she tried to make the entire army swear an oath of allegiance to her personally, it mutinied, freed young Constantine (now 18 years old) and confined Irene to house arrest. Constantine proved weak and indecisive and a poor military leader. The famous Muslim leader Haroun al-Rashid had to be bought off with vast tributes of gold, while Constantine failed in his campaigns against the ever-threatening Bulgars of the North.

Constantine scandalised his church, especially the monks, by divorcing his first wife and marrying a court attendant. This issue, like everything else, became ensnared in theological language and led to splits among the icon-supporters which were exploited by the iconoclasts. In 797 Irene launched a coup against her own son, having him captured, taken to the palace and there ritually blinded. Her own son. He died soon after of his wounds.

Irene (797 – 802)

Although she tried to court popularity by reducing all manner of unpopular taxes, this only had the effect of impoverishing the empire, leaving her unable to repel further incursions by Haroun al-Rashid, alienating the iconoclast army, as well as every conservative who thought there mustn’t be a woman basileus.

In 802, out of the blue, came a marriage proposal from Charles, King of the Franks, who had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor at St Peter’s on Christmas Day 800. Theoretically the pope in Rome was subject to the emperor, the Roman Emperor, resident in Constantinople. But Irene’s reign created a unique conjunction of events. For most churchmen, aristocrats and citizens, a woman couldn’t be basileus. Therefore the Roman throne was vacant. Add in the factor that the popes of Rome had been abused, ignored, sometimes kidnapped and even murdered by various Eastern emperors – and that the East seemed to have been taken over by icon-destroying madness – and was militarily weak, especially against the Muslims – all these are reasons why Pope Leo should turn to by far the strongest military figure in the West, the pious and genuine Christian believer Charles King of the Franks who, in the preceding 30 years, had hugely expanded the territory of his kingdom.

Crowning him emperor in Rome in 800 a) created an entirely new centre of power in the West, resulting in there being two emperors in Christendom b) gave enormous power and influence to Leo (which protected him against powerful enemies who were conniving at his downfall) and – though no-one realised it at the time – to all his successors.

Charles and probably Leo thought that if Charles married Irene it would reunite the two halves of the empire, and hence the marriage proposal. Irene for her part knew how unpopular she had become and looked favourably on it. Imagine if they had go married and Christendom united.

Instead she was overthrown in a palace coup in 802, sent into exile on Lesbos and died a year later. The epoch of one Roman Empire united under one emperor, was over. From now on there would be a Holy Roman Emperor in the West and a Byzantine Emperor in the East.


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

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

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themes and chapters

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

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

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

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

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

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

Not a job for a woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-dressing weddings

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

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

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

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

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

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imperial dressing up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More cross-dressing

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

Transvestite entertainers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straight or gay?

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

Transgender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Washington cross-dressers

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

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

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

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

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

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

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

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

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

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

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

The photos

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

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

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

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

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

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

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

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

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. Floof yourself

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

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

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

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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