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Archive for August, 2008

I did something rather exciting this month- I met thirteen rulers of the world.

The first step in this process was going with a Classicist friend of mine to the British Museum’s Hadrian exhibition. I am a big fan of the BM (please give me a job!) and I really enjoyed all the information on display. It was obvious that they had gone to great lengths to give the visitors a feel of the cosmopolitan state of the Empire under Hadrian, displaying artifacts not only from other sections of the museum but even from different museums altogether- the piece I found most interesting was a papyrus written in the hand of Simon Bar-Kochba, the leader of the Jewish rebellion in ancient Judea in the Second Century. I must confess, I went to the museum knowing only three things about Hadrian: beard, boyfriend, Wall. But this exhibition pieced those external aspects into a rich portrait of Hadrian’s psyche- the beard was a sign of his self-consciousness and longing for the philosopher’s lifestyle of Greece, much the same for the beloved boy Antinoos (deified after his mysterious death by drowning in the Nile), and the Wall up in our frozen North was just one way in which Hadrian cut his losses by making the Roman Empire smaller, but certainly more stable. I also had no idea that Hadrian was so interested in architecture, particularly domes, an interest which made for an uncomfortable relationship with the court architect under Trajan, who told him go “go off and draw your pumpkins”.

Inspired by the exhibition, I bought a copy of Marguerite Yourcenar’s book ‘The Memoirs of Hadrian’, though my Classicist friend warned me that it might be a bit turgid. I finished it this morning and I have to say it is a work of singular beauty. Dense, yes- it has no direct speech at all- but also incredible in its deft turns of phrase, constructed by the translator working in close collaboration with Yourcenar herself. Like all really good authors, she manages to create scenes that we linger over not only as we read them but also for ages after. I’ve only just finished it, but already I can feel her fingers shaping my view of the world! Really, do try to read it if you can- you shall not be disappointed. In short, I now love Hadrian, and if possible I’m going to try to hike the wall sometime between leaving uni and having to get a real life.

After that, off I went to North Cyprus with my family. North Cyprus can be a terribly desolate place, and since lots of it was devastated in various sieges over time often there is not very much to do, especially if you’re at all sensitive to heat. I spent most of my time by the water reading a second-hand copy of Suetonius’ ‘The Twelve Caesars’, translated by Robert Graves (he of ‘I, Claudius’ fame). I often find history a little dry (Tacitus, I’m looking at you here) but Suetonius blew me away. I challenge anyone to read him and not come away with a deep affection for him, though this was evidently not the case in the Second Century when Hadrian allowed him access to the archives but then exiled him. His skill lies in not only telling us the events as they happened but also bringing us close to the emperors in his writing, particularly by including physical details to which sculpture and coinage bear no testimony. I know I’m going on a bit, but I just want to include certain bits which really brought the subjects to life for me, emperor by emperor.

Julius Caesar: A proto-Big Brother, preferring to “discourage rather than punish any plots against his life”, adept at forgiving but not forgetting, a man who tried to stab his attackers back as they made for him. Oddly, this man who had the audacity to march on Rome was to us perhaps not the symbol of virile power we expect now- Suetonius said he had a tendency to “sudden comas” (narcolepsy, perhaps?) and had a comb over- to quote, “… he used to comb the thin strands of hair forward from his poll” (J.C. 45), and would disguise his shiny dome with an honorific laurel wreath voted him by the Senate.

Augustus: We all love Augustus, despite any nasty parallels with Hitler. His image shaped portraiture for decades after, but in real life Augustus was perhaps a bit taken with himself: “… he liked to believe that [his eyes] shone with a sort of divine radiance: it gave him profound pleasure if anyone at whom he glanced keenly dropped his head as though dazzled by looking into the sun” (A. 79). His teeth were rotting out of his head, and he was so obsessed with continuity he tried to get his adopted sons (in actuality his grandsons by his exiled daughter) even to write like him. And he was only 5’7″.

Tiberius: Poor Tiberius. He definitely lost it at some point, retiring to his pleasure palace to indulge his carnal desires in the most aggressive way possible, but what I think sets him apart is that he knew it was coming. He stopped the Senate from swearing an oath to agree with all his decisions in case he became incredibly hateful. Oh, and he rubbed a man’s face raw with a fish the man had brought him as a present (T. 60). Lovely.

Caligula: Now, almost everyone knows something about Caligula. He was incestuous, thought himself a god, and made his horse consul of Rome. He also, it turns out, had a daughter named Julia Drusilla, a nasty piece of work even in infancy, who proved her paternity by trying to scratch out the eyes of her playmates (G.C. 25). This sentence has particularly stuck with me as an image of his desire to control: “He never kissed the neck of his wife or mistress without saying: ‘And this beautiful throat shall be cut whenever I please.'” (G.C. 33). I think Commodus’ character in the film ‘Gladiator’ owes something to this image of Caligula.

Claudius: It may be because I’ve read ‘I, Claudius’ and ‘Claudius the God’, but the over-all picture I get of Claudius is of a man incredibly reluctant to be emperor, tired of patterns and routines. What a relief after Caligula! This story is my favourite: “… when the gladiators shouted: ‘Hail Caesar, we salute you, we who are about to die!’ he answered sarcastically: ‘Or not, as the case may be.'” (C. 21). The gladiators then claim that he has, effectively, freed them and refuse to fight until he begs them to do so. He could be pretty creepy too, though- he had pocket knives made of the swords used by particular gladiators in making mortal wounds (C. 34)

Nero: Oh boy, Nero. He thought himself to be the greatest musician ever, and “won” every prize in Greece just to prove it. He would force the audience to endure his performances, and no one was allowed to leave, so “we read of women in the audience giving birth, and of men being so bored… that they shammed dead and were carried away for burial.” (N. 23). He (allegedly) slept with his mother, and then (definitely) had her killed. Suetonius describes his body as “pustular and malodorous” (N. 51).

Galba: The first emperor in the Year of Four Emperors. A sturdy man, allegedly gay, and so badly deformed by arthritis that he couldn’t even wear shoes or hold paper.

Otho: I feel bad for Otho, he seems nice enough. Nero took his wife and then sent him into exile (he killed the wife by jumping on her when she was pregnant). He also had a toupee, and covered his face in “moist bread” (O. 12) to prevent his beard growing. What an odd solution.

Vitellius: I’m rather glad that Vitellius didn’t last too long, he seems decidedly unpleasant. He apparently was so infatuated with a certain freedwoman that he would mix her spit with honey “and use [it] everyday, quite openly, as a lotion for his neck and throat” (V. 2). A bit of a lad’s lad, fond of belching loudly. What a bore.

Vespasian: Yay, Vespasian! Greedy, yes, but at least he was witty in his greed. At one point, before he was emperor, he was pelted with turnips by some people rioting. I think my favourite aspect is that the Alexandrians called him ‘Cybiosactes’, which apparently means ‘a dealer in small cubes of fish’ because he was so stingy. Apparently he also looked permanently constipated, which is a bit of a disadvantage when you’re supposed to be the face of civilisation.

Titus: Suetonius seems to like Titus, though he does come across as a bit sentimental and weepy. Sadly he only reigned for two years so there’s not too much to say about him.

Domitian: Mad, simply mad. By the end he was so paranoid that he had his court made of highly reflective stone so that he could see behind his back (D. 14). I don’t like him very much, and his death by stabbing in the groin seems an apt punishment for how he treated his niece, Julia Titi- he refused to marry her, but once she was married he had an affair with her. He had her husband killed on some ridiculous trumped-up charge, and she died giving herself an abortion which he was forcing on her(D. 22). His ashes were eventually mixed with hers. He also wrote a manual called ‘Care of the Hair’, which is quite amusing given that he was also bald. Apparently likelihood of ruling the earth is inversely proportional to the amount of hair left on your head. Someone should tell John Edwards.

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