In AD 14, two thousand years ago this summer, the emperor Augustus, having dominated Rome for over forty years, finally breathed his last. The new emperor was his step-son Tiberius. While Augustus’ achievement in ending civil war and discreetly transforming a republic into one-man rule provokes grudging admiration even from those who aren’t keen on autocracy, Tiberius has very few fans. Suetonius’ biography, the third in his twelve Lives of the Caesars, offers some intriguing insights into why this might be.
Descended from one of Rome’s most noble families, Tiberius, in his mid-50s when he came to power, had led a series of enormously successful, if unshowy, military campaigns, securing Pannonia (roughly modern Hungary) in the east and doing much to stabilize the troublesome area around the Rhine in the north. He loved literature, philosophy, and art. He was just the kind of man who had dominated the senior echelons of the senate under the republic – a very traditional kind of Roman leader, it might seem.
But among ancient commentators only Velleius Paterculus, who wrote during his reign, has much good to say. Suetonius, in his biography, and Tacitus, in his Annals, offer a litany of damning criticisms. Tiberius, himself a great respecter of tradition, a stickler for proper procedure, seems to have found his position – as not quite fully acknowledged autocrat, expected to exercise personal dominance through what purported to be the old republican framework – deeply uncomfortable. Unlike Augustus, he had no desire whatsoever to develop a warm relationship with the common people of Rome. (Suetonius makes clear his total lack of interest in the games – a telling indicator.) No money was spent on public works. He veered between insisting the Senate behave independently and dropping cryptic hints as to how he wanted it to vote. Yet his chief crime, in the eyes of some ancient critics, was deserting Rome.
In 26 AD, twelve years into his reign, Tiberius withdrew to the island of Capri, never to return to the city. Was this meant to look like a return to senatorial government? For the next eleven years, imperial control was exercised remotely, for the most part through Sejanus, prefect of the praetorian guard. Among the many prominent Romans convicted of treason in those years were members of Tiberius’ own family, including the widow and two elder sons of his nephew Germanicus. Eventually Sejanus, too, ended up a corpse in the Tiber, taking with him as he fell many who had hoped to profit by associating with the emperor’s henchman. This bloodbath reflects Tiberius’ innate cruelty, as well as his insecurity – but Suetonius highlights other vices, too.
His biography begins with some family history – a mixed bag of earlier Claudians, male and female, some famous for their virtue, others notorious for their arrogance and depravity. Suetonius then charts Tiberius’ early life, his distinguished military career, his accession and the largely positive measures he undertook in the early years of his reign. But chapter 33 hints darkly at the character assassination, which is to follow: ‘He showed only gradually what kind of emperor he was’. This move prefigures the comments Suetonius makes in his Lives of Caligula (ch.22: ‘The story so far has been of Caligula the emperor, the rest must be of Caligula the monster’) and Nero (the end of ch.19 prepares the reader for ‘the shameful deeds and crimes with which I shall henceforth be concerned’). For Suetonius, character, though it may be temporarily masked, is not subject to change or development.
Suetonius does note that Tiberius’ withdrawal meant provincial government was neglected but stories of the emperor’s depravity get much more attention. Once on Capri, Tiberius ‘finally gave in to all the vices he had struggled so long to conceal’. His drinking was legendary, his sex life exceeded the worst imaginings. Surrounded by sexually explicit art-works, Tiberius was addicted to every kind of perversion, with boys, girls – even tiny children. The accusations relating to oral sex would have aroused particular loathing on the part of Roman readers. Tiberius’ appetites were hardly human; ‘people talked of the old goat’s den – making a play on the name of the island’. What did Tiberius really get up to? Stories of this kind were part of the common currency of Roman political discourse. Suetonius devotes similar space to the sexual transgressions of Caligula, Nero, and Domitian – such behaviour is to be expected of a tyrant. The remoteness of the emperor’s residence itself must have fuelled the most lurid imaginations back in Rome. Emblematic of Tiberius’ impossible position is his relationship with his mother Livia. Had she not been Augustus’ wife of many decades, Tiberius would never have succeeded to power. Suetonius repeatedly underlines Livia’s key role in promoting her son. She persuaded Augustus to adopt him, following the deaths of his two adult grandsons. She helped to ensure a rival candidate was eliminated. Even after Tiberius succeeded to Augustus, Livia remained a force to be reckoned with: ‘he was angered by his mother Livia on the grounds that she claimed an equal share in his power’. Yet we should perhaps be just as wary with regard to these stories as with those about Tiberius’ sexual tastes. What better way for Tiberius’ critics to undermine him than to allege this experienced military man in late middle age needed advice from his mother? Such claims would perhaps have been especially offensive to someone of Tiberius’ ultra-traditional outlook. The senators who proposed to honour him with the title ‘Son of Livia’ knew how to torment the emperor. Indeed Suetonius reports stories that the main reason Tiberius left Rome for Capri was to get away from his mother.
Image credits: (1) Siemiradzki Orgy on Capri by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1881. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons (2) Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar (42 BCE – 37 CE). From: H.F. Helmolt (ed.): History of the World. New York, 1901. University of Texas Portrait Gallery. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Roman literature often derived from Greek sources, but took Greek models and made them its own. It includes some of the best known classical authors such as Ovid and Virgil, as well as a Roman emperor who found time to write down his philosophical reflections.
Augustine was a gifted teacher who abandoned his secular career and eventually became bishop of Hippo. His Confessions are a remarkable record of his wrestlings to accept his faith, his struggles to overcome sexual desire and renounce marriage and ambition. His final moment of conversion in a Milan garden is deeply moving.
The great Roman statesman Cicero lived at the center of power. He was an advocate and orator as well as philosopher, who met his death bravely at the hands of Mark Antony’s executioners. On Obligations was written after the assassination of Julius Caesar to provide principles of behavior for aspiring politicians. Exploring as it does the tensions between honorable conduct and expediency in public life, it should be recommended reading for all public servants.
The Roman historian Livy wrote a massive history of Rome in 142 books, of which only 35 survive in their entirety. In the first five books, translated here, he covers the period from Rome’s beginnings to her first major defeat, by the Gauls, in 390 BC. Among the many stories he includes are Romulus and Remus, the rape of Lucretia, Horatius at the bridge, and Cincinnatus called from his farm to save the state.
Lucretius lived during the collapse of the Roman republic, and his poem De rerum natura sets out to relieve men of a fear of death. He argues that the world and everything in it are governed by the laws of nature, not by the gods, and the soul cannot be punished after death because it is mortal, and dies with the body. The book is an astonishing mix of scientific treatise, moral tract, and wonderful poetry.
Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was probably on military campaign in Germany when he wrote his philosophical reflections in a private notebook. Drawing on Stoic teachings, particularly those of Epictetus, Marcus tried to summarize the principles by which he led his life, to help to make sense of death and to look for moral significance in the natural world. Intimate writings, they bring us close to the personality of the emperor, who is often disillusioned with his own status, and with human life in general.
The Metamorphoses is a wonderful collection of legendary stories and myth, often involving transformation, beginning with the transformation of Chaos into an ordered universe. In witty and elegant verse Ovid narrates the stories of Echo and Narcissus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Perseus and Andromeda, the rape of Proserpine, Orpheus and Eurydice, and many more.
Tacitus is perhaps best known for the Histories and the Annals, an account of life under emperors Tiberius, Claudius and Nero. The shorter Agricola and Germany consist of a life of his father-in-law, who completed the conquest of Britain, and an account of Rome’s most dangerous enemies, the Germans. They are fascinating accounts of the two countries and their people, the northern ‘barbarians’. Later, German nationalists attempted to appropriate Germania in support of National Socialist racial ideas.
The Georgics is a poem of celebration for the land and the farmer’s life. Virgil doesn’t romanticize, rather he describes the setbacks as well as the rewards of working the land, and provides memorable descriptions of vine and olive cultivation, raising crops, and bee-keeping. It is both a practical agricultural manual and allegory, and brings the ancient rural world vividly to life.
The story of Aeneas’ seven-year journey from the ruins of Troy to Italy, where he becomes the founding ancestor of Rome, is a narrative on an epic scale. Not only do Aeneas and his companions have to contend with the natural elements, they are at the whim of the gods and goddesses who hamper and assist them. It tells of Aeneas’ love affair with Dido of Carthage and of Aeneas’ encounters with the Harpies and the Cumaean Sibyl, and his adventures in the Underworld.
Poor old king Tut has made the news again – for all the wrong reasons, again.
In a documentary that aired on the BBC two weeks ago, scientists based at the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman unveiled a frankly hideous reconstruction of Tutankhamun’s mummy, complete with buck teeth, a sway back, Kardashian-style hips, and a club foot. They based it on CT-scans of the mummy from 2005 and their own research, claiming to have identified a host of genetic disorders and physical deformities suffered by the boy-king, who died around age 19 some 3,300 years ago.
The English-language newspaper Ahram Online has aired the views of three Egyptian Egyptologists who are just as shocked by the reconstruction as many television viewers were. There are old and understandable sensitivities here: Western scientists have been poking around Egyptian mummies for more than 200 years, while the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 coincided with the birth of an independent Egyptian nation after decades of European colonialism. The ensuing tussle between excavator Howard Carter and the government authorities, over where the tomb finds would end up (Cairo won, and rightly so), highlighted deep-seated tensions about who ‘owned’ ancient Egypt, literally and figuratively. It’s safe to say that the last century has seen king Tut more involved in politics than he ever was in his own lifetime.
Most Egyptologists can readily debunk the ‘evidence’ presented by the EURAC team – if we weren’t so weary of debunking television documentaries already. (why do the ancient Romans get academic royalty like Mary Beard, while the ancient Egyptians get the guy from The Gadget Show?). What’s fascinating is how persistent – and how misguided – lurid interest in the dead bodies of ancient Egyptians is, not to mention the wild assumptions made about the skilled and stunning art this culture produced. The glorious gold mask, gilded shrines and coffins, weighty stone sarcophagus, and hundreds of other objects buried with Tutankhamun were never meant to show us a mere human, but to manifest the razzle-dazzle of a god-king.
Around the time of Tutankhamun’s reign, artists depicted the royal family and the gods with almond eyes, luscious lips, and soft, plump bodies. These were never meant to be true-to-life images, as if the pharaoh and his court were posting #nomakeupselfie snaps on Twitter. Each generation of artists developed a style that was distinctive to a specific ruler, but which also linked him to a line of ancestors, emphasizing the continuity and authority of the royal house. The works of art that surrounded Tutankhamun in life, and in death, were also deeply concerned with a king’s unique responsibilities to his people and to the gods.
All the walking sticks buried in the tomb – more than 130 of them, one of which Carter compared to Charlie Chaplin’s ubiquitous prop – emphasize the king’s status at the pinnacle of society (nothing to do with a limp). The chariots were luxury items (quite macho ones, at that), and Tutankhamun’s wardrobe was the haute couture of its day, with delicate embroidery and spangly sequins. Much of the tomb was taken up with deeply sacred objects, too: guardian statues at the doorways, magic figures bricked into the walls, and two dozen bolted shrines protecting wrapped statues of the king and various gods. Not to mention the shrines, sarcophagus, and coffins that held the royal mummy – a sacred object in itself, long before science got a hold of it.
As for the diseases and deformities Tutankhamun is said to have suffered? Allegations of inbreeding don’t add up: scholars have exhaustively combed through the existing historical sources that relate to Tutankhamun (lots and lots of rather dry inscriptions, I’m afraid), and as yet there is no way to identify his biological parents with any certainty. Don’t assume that DNA is an easy answer, either. Not only do we not know the identity of almost any of the ‘royal’ mummies that regularly do the rounds on TV programmes, but also the identification of DNA from ancient mummies is contested – it simply doesn’t survive in the quantity or quality that DNA amplification techniques require. Instead, many of the ‘abnormal’ features of Tutankhamun’s mummy, like the supposed club foot and damage to the chest and skull, resulted from the mummification process, as research on other mummies has surmised. Embalming a body to the standard required for an Egyptian king was a difficult and messy task, left to specialist priests. What mattered just as much, if not more, was the intricate linen wrapping, the ritual coating of resin, and the layering of amulets, shrouds, coffins, and shrines that Carter and his team had to work through in order to get to the fragile human remains beneath.
The famous mummy mask and spectacular coffins we can see in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo today, or in copious images online, should stop us in our tracks with their splendour and skill. That’s what they were meant to do, for those few people who saw them and for the thousands more whose lives and livelihoods depended on the king. But they should also remind us of how they got there: the invidious colonial system under which archaeology flourished in Egypt, for a start, and the thick resin that had to be hammered off so that the lids could be opened and the royal mummy laid bare. Did king Tut have buck teeth, waddle like a duck, drag race his chariot? Have a look at that mask: do you think we’ve missed the point? Like so many modern engagements with the ancient past, this latest twist in the Tutankhamun tale says more about our times than his.
This selection of ancient Greek literature includes philosophy, poetry, drama, and history. It introduces some of the great classical thinkers, whose ideas have had a profound influence on Western civilization.
Apollonius’ Argonautica is the dramatic story of Jason’s voyage in the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece, and how he wins the aid of the Colchian princess and sorceress Medea, as well as her love. Written in the third century BC, it was influential on the Latin poets Catullus and Ovid, as well as on Virgil’s Aeneid.
This short treatise has been described as the most influential book on poetry ever written. It is a very readable consideration of why art matters which also contains practical advice for poets and playwrights that is still followed today.
One of the greatest Greek tragedians, Euripides wrote at least eighty plays, of which seventeen survive complete. The universality of his themes means that his plays continue to be performed and adapted all over the world. In this volume three great war plays, The Trojan Women, Hecuba, and Andromache, explore suffering and the endurance of the female spirit in the aftermath of bloody conflict.
Herodotus was called “the father of history” by Cicero because the scale on which he wrote had never been attempted before. His history of the Persian Wars is an astonishing achievement, and is not only a fascinating history of events but is full of digression and entertaining anecdote. It also provokes very interesting questions about historiography.
Homer’s two great epic poems, the Odyssey and the Iliad, have created stories that have enthralled readers for thousands of year. The Iliad describes a tragic episode during the siege of Troy, sparked by a quarrel between the leader of the Greek army and its mightiest warrior, Achilles; Achilles’ anger and the death of the Trojan hero Hector play out beneath the watchful gaze of the gods.
Plato’s dialogue presents Socrates and other philosophers discussing what makes the ideal community. It is essentially an enquiry into morality, and why justice and goodness are fundamental. Harmonious human beings are as necessary as a harmonious society, and Plato has profound things to say about many aspects of life. The dialogue contains the famous myth of the cave, in which only knowledge and wisdom will liberate man from regarding shadows as reality.
Plutarch wrote forty-six biographies of eminent Greeks and Romans in a series of paired, or parallel, Lives. This selection of nine Greek lives includes Alexander the Great, Pericles, and Lycurgus, and the Lives are notable for their insights into personalities, as well as for what they reveal about such things as the Spartan regime and social system.
In these three masterpieces Sophocles established the foundation of Western drama. His three central characters are faced with tests of their will and character, and their refusal to compromise their principles has terrible results. Antigone and Electra are bywords for female resolve, while Oedipus’ discovery that he has committed both incest and patricide has inspired much psychological analysis, and given his name to Freud’s famous complex.
The ancient writers of Greece and Rome are familiar to many, but what do their voices really tell us about who they were and what they believed? In Twelve Voices from Greece and Rome, Christopher Pelling and Maria Wyke provide a vibrant and distinctive introduction to twelve of the greatest authors from ancient Greece and Rome, writers whose voices still resonate across the centuries. Below is an infographic that shows how each of the great classical authors would describe their voice today, if they could.