As with all historical fiction, Manfredi has the basic problem that the basic plot of his book is selected for him already- namely the final days of Julius Caesar until his assassination in the Senate House on 15 March 44 B.C.- so I was interested in how he was going to liven it up for someone who was already quite acquainted with the story. Manfredi wrote a very good series on Alexander the Great, which I read ages ago, and he’s had some commercial success with his books ‘Spartan‘ and ‘The Last Legion‘. In addition to this, he is a Professor of Classics in Italy, so he knows his stuff.

The story of Julius Caesar is exciting, but usually only when you’re hearing or seeing it for the first time- the portents in the sky, the mysterious soothsayer, the murder of the most powerful man in Rome- but after that it can get a bit flat. So to jazz up the storyline a bit, Manfredi invents a side story about a man racing to Rome to tell Caesar that his life is in danger. Meanwhile, back in the city, Caesar’s closest companion (invented, I believe, though there is a helpful glossary in the back to tell you which characters are real and which fake) is trying to find out Brutus’ plot before it’s too late, with the help of some useful Greek slaves. Oh, and Caesar’s epilepsy is playing up again, and he has to juggle his wife Calpurnia, his ex-mistress Servilia and current mistress Cleopatra, whom Antony’s been making eyes at, while preparing an attack on the East to avenge a lost legion and worrying about the Roman people thinking he wants to be king… phew!

All in all, I thought the book was quite good, though not stellar. In fact, the moment I found most exciting was the brief description of the opening ceremonies at Caesar’s funeral, which marked the close of the book. Still, I suppose it was nice to hint a bit at the new civil war to come, rather than finishing with Caesar’s crumpled body on the floor of the Senate. One criticism I have is that the tension was not quite as high as I would have liked, especially the moments where those investigating the plot think they might be about to be caught, though I was surprised at how engrossed I became in the final few scenes of Caesar’s life- will he go to the Senate? will he read the message in time?- despite knowing exactly what happens. I felt the death scene didn’t take long enough either. I like my deaths slow-mo, like in films- that way you can tell that they’re especially important and tragic. It wouldn’t necessarily have been that hard to do either for a writer of Manfredi’s expertise. A closer glimpse into Caesar’s mind would have been appreciated too. Does he want to be king? Does he just want to survive? What does he really think? Instead the lead roles in the story are given to other people, which seems a shame.

Enough wingeing! I did enjoy the revitalized role of Cleopatra in this book, as well as Antony’s slimyness. The relationship between Caesar and Calpurnia, his barren wife, was particularly poignant, as was that between Brutus and Porcia. He has a good eye for detail, and he really shed a bit of light on a few minor aspects of Roman life, like the little wayside inns on the road to Rome. I guess I would recommend this book to people who might not be very well-versed in Classics yet and/or want to put a human face on well-known events, but I doubt I would mention it to people who already know the story too well to be surprised by anything new.

There was a  brief discussion on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (start from 1 hour 24 minutes in) featuring Professor Beard talking about the comparisons between Roman Emperors and American Presidents, prompted by a new book by Nigel Hamilton coming out called ‘American Caesars’. Thankfully he’s just given the presidents “the Suetonius treatment”, which is much better than the tired trope of comparing presidents individually and directly to any particular emperor, though Prof. Beard seemed quite keen to compare JFK to Nero, which I had never thought of before…

I reviewed Suetonius’ ‘Twelve Caesars’ earlier on this blog, and I highly recommend it! Thankfully you can listen to the broadcast as well, courtesy of the BBC’s wonderful iPlayer system.


I know it’s tangential to my general theme, but I thought this was quite funny. Enjoy!

Life After Death

Three posts in three days, not bad!

Basically, I am a massive Doctor Who nerd- I love watching all the excitement and fake science whizzing by at the speed of a witticism. I’ll keep this short so as not to bore you all, but a big part of this series’ plot revolves around a persistent crack in time/space (watch out, the link has spoilers) which consumes anything in its path and does not simply destroy the object/person/race/planet, but also removes it completely from time, so that it never existed in the first place. Unfortunately, and since this has already been out on TV it won’t be a spoiler, one of the main characters in the new series dies and then is devoured by this crack. The Doctor insists that the character will continue to exist if only he can be held in memory, even if that is a sort of vicarious existence.

Since I am a nerd, I also watched the behind-the-scenes ‘Doctor Who Confidential’ for this episode, and the overwhelming impression I got from the interviews of the actors and writers is that it was bad enough for the character to die, but for him to be completely forgotten was “even worse”- as though being remembered would be a consolation for dying.

Whenever I think about death and remembrance, my thoughts go to the works of Homer- The Iliad and The Odyssey. In The Iliad, Achilles tells us that he was given a choice by his divine mother that he could die young but gain eternal glory, or live a long life with no glory at all (terrible translation here). He makes his choice and dies at Troy, remaining the archetypal warrior for centuries, inspiring such leaders as Alexander the Great. We can already see here, in a poem composed sometime in the Bronze Age, that people were already thinking that being remembered after your death was a suitable replacement for continuing to live.

However, in The Odyssey, Odysseus encounters Achilles as he wanders through the Underworld, and tells him that his fame back among the living is alive and well, though Achilles himself is dead. Here we can see quite a change from the Achilles we meet in The Iliad– he says that he would rather be the lowest slave alive on Earth than be king of the whole Underworld. Quite a change!

The question of living on in the remembrance of others probably shifted emphasis even more later when the Christian idea of heaven arrived, where the afterlife was not an aimless darkness, but a glorious space where the love of God is fully present for each individual. Nevertheless, we still persist in feeling, for reasons we can’t quite explain, that to be forgotten after your death is a very sad and serious problem. It’s why we have Memorial Day and Remembrance Day, among other commemorative holidays. Philosophers through time have battled with this issue, and I’d be interested to hear your collective wisdom, O Internet.

For Mary

Mary Beard

Oh dear. I picked up my university’s august news organ Varsity yesterday because it promised an interview with “classics blogger” Mary Beard- who also happens to be a very highly respected academic, the only female Classics professor at Cambridge University, you know, when she’s not blogging. I was therefore slightly surprised when the article referred to her continuously as “Mrs. Beard”, as if she did not have any of her postgraduate degrees, let alone the highly-sought  prize of a professorship at Cambridge.

I’m not trying to make this into a feminist issue, but I can’t help thinking that, hypothetically speaking, if the interviewer were speaking to Simon Goldhill, a Classics professor from Kings, he definitely would have been called ‘Professor Goldhill’. Mary has certainly worked hard for her status, and the obstacles she has faced being both an academic and a mother is quite different from those which male academics with children face (for the details, go to her blog), and if anyone has earned the right to be called by their proper title, it is her. She’s more than a pity party too- she’s very, very good at what she does. Her book ‘Pompeii‘ really is one of my favourite books on the subject of the ancient town, primarily because she managed to really get a feel for the city as if it were alive and well again in the 1st century AD, complete with small practical notes on subjects like how Romans may have dealt with one way streets in the dark.

Also, as a smaller technical point, she wouldn’t be called “Mrs. Beard” anyway! For those in the know (i.e. those who listened to ‘Desert Island Discs’ when she was featured), her husband’s name is Professsor Robin Cormack- ‘Beard’ is her maiden name. “Mrs. Beard” is, in fact, Mary’s late mother (and that would have been a rather odd interview).

As an undergraduate I very much enjoyed my time with Mary in supervisions and field trips (though my year did not get to go to Paris like this year’s group!), and I can say with a great deal of background knowledge that she has worked and continues to work incredibly hard in her academic career and for her students- she gave me a reference for my Master’s at the very last minute without a grumble (to which she would have been perfectly entitled), and the late-night Sunday supervisions at her house helped me in my final year no end.

So, thank you, Professor Beard. Long may you reign.


ex. CNG E225, 365.

Sestertius of Didius Julianus


Sorry it’s been so long since my last post! I hope this makes up for it.

After the reign of the well-known emperor Commodus, the Roman empire experience an unfortunate year known as ‘The Year of the Five Emperors’, which outdid the last upheaval after the death of Nero, which was The Year of the Four Emperors. Pertinax, Commodus’ successor, reigned for a pitiful 83 days before being killed by his own guards, allegedly over pay.

The finances of the Empire were in a terrible state after the death of Commodus in 192 AD, and pay for the military was a killing matter. According to Cassius Dio’s history of the incident, when Julianus heard of the death of the Emperor, he rushed to the camp and, since he was not allowed in, “standing at the gates of the enclosure, made bids to the soldiers for the rule over the Romans”. The two contenders, Julianus and another man named Sulpicius (who, shamefully, has no article on Wikipedia), essentially placed bids for the position of Ruler of the Civilized World by promising each soldier a certain amount of money. At the last moment, right when it seemed that Sulpicius was going to win, Didius placed a bid of 25,000 sestertii per soldier, which was approximately twenty five times the annual pay of an ordinary foot soldier, and won the auction. According to the Historia Augusta, he actually gave each of them 30,000. Unhelpfully, the sources do not say how many soldiers were included in his promise, but given that a Roman legion at that time consisted of 5,400 men, Didius must have spent upwards of 162,000,000 sestertii. According to Wikipedia, that amount could have bought 324,000 donkeys.

The sources differ on Julianus’ personality. Dio says he was an “insatiate money-getter”, whereas the Historia Augusta says he was “very reasonable in the matter of granting liberty”. They also differ on his age, with Dio saying he died aged 60, and the Historia Augusta insisting he was 56 years and 4 months old. In any event, he ruled for two months and five days before being killed by a soldier. According to Dio, his last words were “But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?”

The Root of All Evil

Just a quick etymological post.

Did you ever wonder why we call money ‘money’? Or how the Mint got its name despite its notable lack of peppermint fragrance (or taste)? It’s all because of the Romans.

When the Romans established their Mint, they did not set it up in its own building, but in a temple. This was probably to give the roots of their economy divine protection from robbers and other problems. The temple they chose was the temple of Juno who Warns, or in Latin, Juno Moneta. The little stamped metal discs which issued from the temple were called ‘Things of the one who warns’- monetae. Gradually these “monetae” took on a life of their own and spawned their own deities, the three Monetae, one for every type of metal used in coinage: gold, silver and bronze. They are always shown together, each holding a set of scales and a horn of plenty. Here’s a nice example issued by Commodus:

I find ancient money really interesting, but I’ll try and space out the posts a bit- I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea!