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69AD: The Year of Four Emperors By Gwyn Morgan
Pass us another pike liver...
Sunday 02 April 2006
For 99 years, from the Battle of Actium in 31BC to the year AD68, the Julio-Claudian dynasty ruled the Roman Empire. And then in June 68, Nero put himself to death by stabbing himself in the throat, with the immortally luvvie words, "Qualis artifex pereo!" (What an artist I die!). And for the next tumultuous 18 months, the Roman world was plunged into unprecedented uncertainty, chaos, revolt and civil war, as no fewer than three emperors came and went with bewildering swiftness, before a fourth appeared on the scene: a jovial, bluff, no-nonsense soldier-emperor called Vespasian. It was quite a year.
All of which makes it more regrettable that Gwyn Morgan, Professor of Classics and History at the University of Texas, renders the year so dismally dull. As dry as the Numidian desert, as heavy-going as Hannibal's crossing of the Alps. He mistrusts Suetonius for being far too entertaining and gossipy, for his "delight in the rumours", but equally he cannot allude to the more sober Tacitus without interminable digressions on the historian's rhetorical devices or unreliable exaggerations. Plutarch, too, makes "wild claims", while previous modern histories of the period have been too "overtly popular". Professor Morgan himself need have no worries on that score. His kind of historical writing, as drained of life as if it has just spent the night with Dracula, will never be overtly popular.
We can't be sure of the truth of some of the more outrageous gossip. We can't be sure that, as Suetonius tells us, the moment Galba heard about Nero's death from Icelus, "one of his old time bed-fellows... Galba openly showered him with kisses and begged him to get ready and have intercourse without delay". Professor Morgan, however, denies us this colourful titbit, although he can have no more idea than you or I whether this really happened. You'll have to go back to Suetonius himself for such entertainment.
Galba, ageing, parsimonious and conservative, marched on Rome from Spain at once, and a precedent was set. Military muscle, not ancestry, would henceforth tend to decide Imperial succession. One could argue that military might had decided political power ever since Caesar crossed the Rubicon, but nevertheless, this moment of Galba's march on Rome sent shockwaves through the Empire. Galba was no more attractive in character than many subsequent Emperors, and he was certainly tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. He once sentenced a dishonest money-changer to have both his hands cut off and nailed to the counter, and when he ordered another man to be crucified and the felon objected that he was a Roman citizen - citizens could not be crucified - he mirthfully gave orders for his cross to be whitewashed first.
Galba was killed by the henchmen of the next Emperor-in-waiting, Otho. A soldier had to carry his severed head to the boss "with his thumb stuck in Galba's mouth", as you might carry an old-fashioned milk bottle, since Galba was bald and couldn't be carried by his hair. Otho was even more of a nonentity as Emperors go, bow-legged, splay-footed and carefully depilated all over his body. His reign was even shorter than Galba's, a mere three months, ending in suicide.
Then came the worst of the three, Vitellius. Tacitus evidently despises Vitellius especially, but other sources make him sound pretty ghastly too. He had spent his boyhood on Capri amid Tiberius's appalling orgies (not at all a healthy atmosphere for a young lad to grow up in), throwing himself so enthusiastically into the proceedings that he earned himself the nickname Spintria. "Poofter" or "Faggot" is the only fair translation of this word. Famed for both extravagance and cruelty, Vitellius banqueted three or four times a day, vomiting frequently to clear the way for the next course. He once demanded a vastly expensive dish made of pike livers, peacock brains, flamingo tongues and lamprey milt. He was killed by the horrible "Torture of Little Cuts" before being dragged down to the Tiber by a hook and thrown in.
Thank Jupiter for Vespasian, the pragmatic, worldly soldier-emperor, generally much-loved and respected, except for that unfortunate incident at Hadrumetum in Africa, where an angry populace pelted him with turnips. On another occasion, a young officer came to him reeking of perfume. Vespasian was so outraged that he stripped him of his command on the spot. "I wouldn't have minded if he'd stunk of garlic!" The words might have been bellowed by Wellington.
Vespasian made one of the all-time great death-bed jokes. Pace the recent-ish and ridiculous Roman custom of deifying Emperors after their deaths, as he lay expiring he murmured dryly, "I think I am turning into a god!" It was a good 10 years that he held power and, just as importantly, he managed what so few decent emperors managed (Augustus gave way to the monstrous Tiberius, remember): he passed on the succession to his equally just and humane son, Titus, who carried the baton for a further 12 years.
But what of the magnificent bust of Vespasian that survives, currently in the Terme Museum in Rome? Broad-faced, balding, a distinct smile hovering round the mouth, one of the most appealing images of all the Roman Emperors? Why isn't it reproduced here? Because there are no images at all in Professor Morgan's dense tome. No busts, no coins, no ruins, nada. Such fripperies might make the text too "overtly popular", perhaps.
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