Posts Tagged ‘Power’

For whatever reason, most likely an accident of historical recording, people in the ancient world seem to have an incredible proclivity for cruelty, and probably the most famous cruelties were those inflicted by the Romans. So here are my top five worst ways to suffer like a Roman.

5. Skinned alive with your own crab

Source: http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://faculty.ed.umuc.edu/~jmatthew/naples/fishcombo2.jpg&imgrefurl=http://faculty.ed.umuc.edu/~jmatthew/naples/Tiberius.htm&usg=__goDcIROCgREAEF0EuCggzDR-XgA=&h=450&w=346&sz=26&hl=en&start=2&um=1&itbs=1&tbnid=GSEIIC7iCyk1yM:&tbnh=127&tbnw=98&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dtiberius%2Bcrab%2Bfisherman%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dsafari%26sa%3DN%26rls%3Den-us%26tbs%3Disch:1

This splendid story comes from my favourite historian Suetonius. Tiberius spent most of his reign on the island of Capri doing all sorts of naughty things. One day, a local fisherman caught a massive mullet, and, thinking that a fish of that size was worthy of the emperor alone, scampered up to the palace to present it to him. Tiberius was a terribly paranoid man, and was terrified at the thought that his palace could be so easily accessed by any local hick who knew to go round the back of the island. In reprisal, he ordered that the man’s face be rubbed raw with the fish. To make matters worse, the fisherman gave thanks that he had not also brought the massive crab he had caught, whereupon Tiberius ordered his guards to fetch the crab also, and used that as well as the fish to skin the man’s face completely. Probably apocryphal, but still very nasty.

4. The petard hoist

Seneca, tutor to Nero, had been a life-long Stoic and borderline ascetic, never eating or drinking too much, writing gory plays. Late in his life he became embroiled in a plot to kill the emperor whom he had once tutored. The plot was discovered and Seneca preferred to commit suicide than be executed. In true Roman style, he thought he would slit his wrists, but his age and the fact that he had been so frugal in his diet had restricted his veins, so he bled very slowly. Wanting to speed things up, he also cut the arteries at the back of his knees, but to no avail. He tried to do a Socrates and drink poison, but again his lean frame failed him. In the end he had to stand in a hot bath and suffocate himself with the steam. The ‘ironic’ thing is that Seneca’s Stoicism both led him to suicide and prevented him from it at the same time.

3. Can you smell roses?

Another rotten emperor was Elagabalus, whom I’ve mentioned before in this blog. He devised a clever scheme for retractable ceiling panels for one of his many dinner parties, which would allow flowers to be sprinkled on his guests as they ate. However, the fatal twist was that the flowers did not stop falling, and the people below were smothered under their weight.

2. The worst tiki torches

Source: Google

The boy emperor Nero is not known for being much of a nice guy. He killed his own mother and anyone else who stood in his way, and allegedly did nothing to stop Rome from burning to a crisp. Notwithstanding all of this, Nero is possibly best known for persecuting the early Christians, blaming them for the Great Fire. Not only did he sew them up in animal skins and set dogs on them, he also dipped them in tar and straw and set them on fire for use as lights in his outdoor banqueting hall.

1. Meddling friends

Cato the Younger was a highly respected Republican senator in the closing days of the Republic before the emperors and rabidly anti-Caesar. During the Civil War, when the tide was clearly turning in Caesar’s favour, Cato decided that it would be better to die than to have Caesar pardon him and spare his life. Not wanting a big fuss, like any modest Roman, he tried to stab himself when everyone had gone out, but his hand was inflamed and he botched it. He struggled and knocked over his bedside table, bringing his friends running. They found a doctor and stitched him up while Cato was still only semi-conscious, but when he came to and saw what had happened, he ripped open his stitches and tore out his own intestines in his bid to die. Not pretty.

And, as a lovely supplement –

Not technically a death, but still… 

Source here: http://www.uoregon.edu/~klio/im/rr/laterep/crassus-death.jpgThe East had always been alluring to the grasping Romans, particularly because it seemed to be full of people who were very hard to conquer. In 53 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus, a close friend of Julius Caesar and the richest man in Rome at the time, was killed at the Battle of Carrhae (an overwhelming defeat for the Romans) and his body captured by the Parthians. To punish him in a post-mortem way for the greed which had driven him to invade them, they poured molten gold down his throat and preserved his head. Later, the Parthian court saw a performance of Euripides’ ‘Bacchae’, which has as its climax a scene involving a severed head. Guess whose head was used? Yes- that of poor Crassus. As Plutarch points out, it was a fittingly tragic end to a tragic campaign.

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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.

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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?”

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Sometimes I wind up reading strange things, and sometimes those things are about Romans. This is one such case. I bring you… EMPEROR OF THE VARIABLE PERIOD OF TIME AWARD, wherein I bring you one of my favourite emperors and explain what it was which made them so good/bad/bonkers (Hint: most recipients of the award will be in the latter two categories).

The first recipient of my “prestigious” award is the Emperor Elagabalus.

Elagabalus, our favourite rose-utilising murderer.

Elagabalus, our favourite rose-utilising murderer.

That’s a strange name, you may be thinking. Well, yes it is. He was born with the sensible name Marcus, but changed his name to Elagabalus when he was made the priest of the eponymous Persian sun god aged 14. Once he made it to the throne aged 15, he proceeded to surprise no one who knows a 15-year-old by ruining everything. At one banquet, he drowned his guests in rose petals for no obvious reason. He never wore a garment more than once, and allegedly would wear rings only once, then throw them away. According to the Historia Augusta, he used to get his friends so drunk that they passed out, then shut them up in a room and send his tame, but very much alive, lions and bears in to wake them in the morning.

His religious fanaticism resulted in his essentially equating himself with the god- on his coins sometimes he has a strange little horn protruding from his forehead. Elagabalus CoinHe caused scandal in Rome by marrying a Vestal Virgin (women who, in case you hadn’t guessed, were really supposed to stay virgins) named Aquilia Severa. He then made it all better by having a parallel marriage ceremony where the god Elagabalus married the goddess Vesta. The marriage between both couples apparently didn’t last, and Elagabalus married off his god to another goddess, Venus, when it suited him.

According to Dio, Elagabalus was so extraordinarily effeminate that not only did he wear garments entirely of silk but actually consulted physicians about making him biologically female (please note that I am not trying to deprecate the LGBT community, but Dio certainly was). He was told by an oracle that he would die violently, so he had some velvet nooses, gold swords and jewelled bottles of poison on standby at all times. Too bad he was murdered with his mother and both their bodies were dragged to the Tiber via the Roman sewer system. I wonder why…

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Recently I read on this website that Commodus, the emperor most famous for being killed by Russell Crowe in the film ‘Gladiator’, hardly resembled his film persona. Here’s what the site says:

Commodus, the hare-lipped Roman Emperor who lusted after his sister in the film, was in real life held in high esteem by the senate and ruled for a successful 13 years (rather than the ineffectual few months depicted in the film). Also, though the Emperor did, in fact, have an enthusiasm for gladiatorial combat (he did so incognito), he didn’t get his ticket punched in the arena. He was killed in the bath by a wrestler named Narcissus to prevent him taking office as consul.

Admittedly, the film ‘Gladiator’ has a lot to answer for. For instance, they get the geography of Rome wrong; Marcus Aurelius probably would never have addressed his son as ‘Commodus’, as his first name was Lucius; he was indeed killed by a man called Narcissus (no relation to the Narcissus of Echo and gardening fame); he ruled from 177 to 192 AD, not a few months or weeks, and he probably wasn’t incestuous (though he wouldn’t be the first…). However, I feel this misguided website needs a spot of correction.

1. I doubt very much that the emperor was held “in high esteem” by the Senate. The Roman Senate was in the practice of handing out awards to emperors for just about no reason, so the awards he accumulated were about as reflective of their “esteem” as giving him someone’s collection of pocket lint. Also, when he died, the Senate issued a ‘damnatio memoriae’ against him, which involved erasing his name from inscriptions, destroying or altering his statues, and sometimes pulling down buildings which he built. So much for “high esteem”.

2. As for his rule being “successful”, define success. He did stop the Second Germanic War, but what else? According to my source (which is, surprisingly, not Wikipedia, but a book called ‘Roman Coins and Their Values’ by David Sear), he retired from public life and left the daily running of the Empire to various favourites.

3. “Enthusiasm for gladiatorial combat” doesn’t quite cut it. He was so keen on fighting beasts in the arena that Sear says that he “disgraced the purple”. Also, Roman emperors are notoriously bad at doing anything incognito, and there would have been little point in fighting wild beasts incognito- if the ringside assistants don’t know you’re the Emperor, how will they know when to save you, rather than letting you be ripped apart for entertainment?

4. The article fails to mention that Commodus was quite, quite mad. The picture of Commodus used by the website for this article is a statue of him as Hercules, the super-strong god, and the likeness isn’t just for artistic effect. Sear says that Commodus believed himself to be Hercules reincarnated, and made people worship him. Statues of Hercules-Commodus were set up in public places to remind the people what was what (or who was who).

So there you have it. It turns out that you can’t believe what you see on the cinema or read on the Internet. Except here- here you are safe. Relatively.

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This story probably belongs to one of those ‘Isn’t It Eerily Coincidental’ type groups, but I think it’s marvellous, particularly because I haven’t heard it anywhere else.

So, long ago in Ancient Rome, the Romans were ruled by kings. This was before the Senate, before Hannibal, before pretty much everything. Kings ruled Rome from its founding by “Romulus” in 753 BC until 496 BC.

In 496 BC the king in question was called Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (unfortunately pronounced ‘su-per-bus’ not ‘super-bus’, which would be more fun), a.k.a. Tarquin the Proud. Tarquin was badly behaved, and in turn had a badly behaved son called Sextus Tarquinius. Sextus Tarquinius fell in love with the wife of his cousin, a fellow nobleman, called Lucretia (the wife, not the cousin), and forced her to sleep with him. She told her husband and father about the outrage and then, lest she become an example for unfaithful wives to come, killed herself to avoid the shame. As you do.

Sextus’ cousin was upset, understandably, and so was Lucretia’s kinsman (a word meaning ‘we don’t really know how he was related to her, but he sure got involved’) Lucius Junius Brutus. Lucius Junius Brutus overthrew Tarquin the Proud and set up the Roman Republic, which went on to conquer the world.

Stay with me.

Now, around 44 BC, a man called Julius Caesar (you may have heard of him) proclaimed himself “dictator for life” in Rome, and was promptly killed by just about everybody. It felt like that anyway- Suetonius describes the scene, including the moment when Caesar rather dimly shouts ‘Why, this is violence!’ Yes, well done, Julius. Anyway, the head honcho of that little affair was called Marcus Junius Brutus, who claimed he was related to the famous Lucius Junius Brutus who freed Rome from the kings (Side note: this is impossible, as Lucius had only one son, who died before procreating). According to legend, right after stabbing Caesar, Brutus waved his bloody dagger aloft and cried “Sic semper tyrranus“, translated as ‘thus always to tyrants’, or ‘that’s what you get!’ The image of Brutus standing over the dead Caesar with his bloody dagger is on the seal of the state of Virginia, and ‘sic semper tyrannus‘ is its motto.

Again, stay with me. Here is where it gets good.

A less long time ago in England, a baby boy was born to a Mr. and Mrs. Booth. The Booths, being Classical types, named their son Junius Brutus, after the liberator (and possibly after the one who murdered Caesar- despite what Wikipedia says, it’s hard to tell, what with the Romans being so conservative about names). Junius became a great Shakespearean actor and moved to America, where he had three sons who also became actors, and seven other children who didn’t. One of Junius’ sons had the catchy name John Wilkes.

See where I’m going with this?

Little Johnny Wilkes Booth grew up to be the man who assassinated Lincoln. As he jumped from the box where the president lay dying, he allegedly shouted “Sic semper tyrannus“.

So. Two “descendants” of a Lucius Junius killed two world leaders and shouted the same thing, but divided by over 1900 years. Both were also chased and killed for their efforts.

Two more interesting tidbits:

1. Both Lincoln and Caesar were killed on the 15th of a month (Caesar in March, Lincoln in April).

2. The famous Booth family of actors once performed Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1864. Disappointingly for my story, John Wilkes played Mark Antony (he of ‘unleash the dogs of war’ fame), not Brutus. John Wilkes’ more talented brother Edwin took that role.

The best part about this story? It adds so much more depth to Lincoln’s assassination. When the only explanation for Booth’s quip is that it’s the state motto of Virginia, it doesn’t fully reveal Booth’s continuity with other self-proclaimed “tyrant-slayers”. Booth wasn’t just a violent racist, he saw himself as one of the great assassins of history, whose boldness would usher in a new way of life for the country, like the two Brutuses before him. It matters that he wasn’t just a guy who really knew his state mottos- he was fitting himself into the shoes of the archetypal vigilante.

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Just  a quick post for those of you who are interested in tricky little facts to unfurl at dinner parties: the year 46 B.C. was the longest year on record.

46 B.C. was the year that Julius Caesar made his calendar reforms. Suetonius writes in Julius Caesar 40, “First he reorganized the Calendar which the Poniffs had allowed to fall into such disorder, by intercalating days or months as it suited them, that the harvest and vintage festivals no longer corresponded with the appropriate seasons. He linked the year to the course of the sun by lengthening it from 355 days to 365, abolishing the short extra month intercalated after every second February, and adding an entire day every fourth year. But to make the next first of January fall at the right season, he drew out this particular year by two extra months, inserted between November and December, so that it consisted of fifteen, including the intercalary one insterted after February in the old style.”

So there you have it. Julius Caesar, inventor of the Leap Year Day and in whose honour the month of July is named, made the year 46 B.C. the longest ever, and thank goodness.

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