There is nothing original in this book. Even my view that the Emperor Caligula was not mad, just very bad and very dangerous to know, is allowed by his latest biographer.
The unexpected behaviour of the famous and infamous in Ancient Rome, which I may have pointed up in these pages, came from mostly standard sources; what I hope has been fresh is the approach. Cicero revealed himself as a Rachmanlike slum landlord in a letter to his friend Atticus. The loan of money at 48 per cent by Brutus, ‘the noblest Roman of them all’, is a matter of Senatorial record. Julius Caesar’s disdainful preoccupation with his despatch box at the Games was witnessed by thousands and recorded by a few. The picture of his great-nephew, Augustus, friendless and bored in his old age, watching small boys playing dice in his little house on the Palatine Hill, hoping his wife has found him a virgin for the afternoon, is my emphasis but not my invention; indeed Ancient Rome was so literate, so lively and so malicious that the amateur historian has no need to invent anything, unlike, say, the mediaevalist. (My favourite anecdote has a very modern ring. One of Nero’s aunts was very mean. She let it be known that she did not ‘appreciate’ – as New Yorkers say – one young man around town saying she sold old shoes. He sent back a message. ‘Tell her I didn’t say she sold them; I said she bought them!’)
Tiberius, Augustus’ stepson and son-in-law, was the next Emperor and essentially the most scrupulous and conscientious of the bunch, and the misanthropy which soured him only came from his bitterness at being forced (by Augustus) to abandon the only human being he loved – his wife. (Augustus, by the way, was certainly not poisoned by his wife, Livia, as seen on television. They had lived together for forty years and did not particularly like each other, but she had no reason to murder him, like two other Empresses, the succession of her son, Tiberius, being secure.)
Hating Rome, and indeed all mankind, Tiberius took his revenge by bequeathing as Emperor the ‘serpent’ (his word) Caligula, his great-nephew, who, inevitably assassinated, was succeeded, illegally, by his uncle Claudius, not the dithering benevolent figure of recent impersonations but the most cunning and ruthless of the Julio-Claudian clan. Poisoned by a dish of his favourite mushrooms, and finished off by his doctor, Claudius was succeeded by his seventeen-year-old nephew, a golden boy who did not breathe freely until he had murdered his mother.
(An explanation for their appalling conduct must be that these characters, with the exception of the first two, Caesar and Augustus, who had loving parents, endured such traumatic childhoods as would make a social worker of today vow to get them off any charge.)
The first five years of Nero’s fourteen-year reign were notably benign, guided by Seneca, hero of Classics masters down the ages, whose enforcement of his usury provoked the bloody rebellion of Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni and Commander-in-Chief of the English, who appealed to the Emperor Nero. (This lady was coeval with St Paul, so, with Seneca as link, they would all have known about each other.) Nero, historically unpopular for trying to eliminate an unappealing sect of Jews, not yet known as Christians, was the most charming of these Emperors, the most visionary and the only aesthete. He was of course cruel – Romans were – but this twentieth century, with Auschwitz as its visiting card, has no right to point a finger at the first. Nero tried to abolish the Games, and his proposal that he stop a war by appearing before the army of the enemy and bursting into tears should be an idea considered for contemporary heads of state by the United Nations.
Finally a word about the essays, which are intended to set the background against which the leading characters perform. I have included – perhaps a piece of self-indulgence – one on Rome and her Jews, relatively more numerous than they are today but ignored by Ancient Roman historians and not much dealt with by the moderns. Further I have not really well understood the religions of the Romans but I sense that neither did they. I see I have omitted the haruspices, the practice of divining the correct course of actions by examining the entrails of an animal. I remember the Roman general thus warned against his proposed attack ignoring the advice and winning. I believe the only ‘ism’ Romans believed in was that of pragma.
To our eyes now, Ancient Rome does not appear so ancient or so far away. It was nearer in spirit to turn-of-the-century Manhattan – with its polyglottery, very rich and very poor – and in its power-broking and denunciations, to contemporary Washington, capital of the present number-one world power.
This book is the personal view of an amateur and will therefore contain inaccuracies, for which I apologize. I have snuffled round Roman vestiges in England, France, Italy and Israel (once with the late General Yadin). I published a book on Aphrodisias but I have not yet been there, or seen much of Rome in North Africa, though reading Susan Raven is a fine substitute for a visit. Patrolling the perimeter of the Circus Maximus in Rome, I noticed one side was dug into the rock of the Aventine Hill and I fancied I heard the echo of the din made by the very early morning crowd claiming their free seats for the chariot races which so annoyed Caligula, trying to sleep in his palace on the top of the Palatine Hill opposite.