Inside the Emperors’ Clothes

Emperor Nero; painting by Abraham Janssens, 1618
Jagdschloss Grunewald, Berlin/bpk/Art Resource
Emperor Nero; painting by Abraham Janssens, 1618

The empire of ancient Rome spanned the entire Mediterranean world. It included two of the world’s great monotheist religions, Judaism and Christianity, and it provided the environment for the creation of a third, Islam. Historians from antiquity to the present have struggled to comprehend how a small Italian town grew from modest beginnings into a republic and then, after a succession of civil wars, into a great empire. Edward Gibbon was not the only one to recognize that the market for Roman history was huge. It still is, not least because of its colorful and larger-than-life rulers but above all because it embraced so many different and yet interconnected peoples. From the Atlantic to the Euphrates, from the Rhine and the Danube to the edge of the Sahara, Rome transformed and refashioned the cultures it absorbed, and we live today with the aftermath of its conquests.

Rome’s achievement was as paradoxical as it was immense. It seems to have happened without any design or master plan. Gibbon was the first to see that this global transformation could be explained neither by listing dates and sources nor by appealing to divine intervention. The antiquarians who preceded Gibbon not only failed to explain Rome’s rise but failed to perceive, as he conspicuously did, that Roman history had all the ingredients for a great work of literature. Gibbon set the gold standard for literary history, which not even Johann Gustav Droysen on Alexander the Great or Francis Parkman on France and England in America could match. His success was arguably due as much to his great theme as to his tireless industry in composing his work. The three books under review prove that the appetite for Roman history continues unabated to this day.

Anglophone readers have every reason to rejoice that Gibbon, the first and greatest of modern Roman historians, wrote in their language. Theodor Mommsen, who won the Nobel Prize for writing about ancient Rome in German, knew perfectly well that he was no Gibbon. He steadfastly refused to bring his Roman history into the imperial period, where he would have had to compete with his admired eighteenth-century English predecessor. Apart from Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution of 1939, which distilled the irony and insight of Tacitus’s Latin into lapidary English prose, no histories of Rome in English have achieved Gibbon’s unique combination of deep scholarship and literary style.

Yet by an astonishing coincidence two contemporary English authors who write often and well about ancient Rome, Mary Beard and Tom Holland, have simultaneously produced readable histories of Rome. It would be patronizing and wrong to speak of their work as popularization, but there can be little doubt that both writers are deservedly popular. Between them they have done more to promote classical studies than all the professors who try to reach thousands through the electronic programs currently known as massive open online courses (MOOCs).

The new books by Beard and Holland overlap most closely in their treatment of the end of the Roman Republic and the first century of the empire, but they also look backward as far as Romulus and Remus. Both show the experience of the two writers in communicating with a general audience by beginning in the middle of the narrative, to engage the reader’s attention, and then circling back to fill in what came before. Beard starts with Cicero’s exposure in 63 BC of the conspiracy of Catiline, and Holland starts in 40 AD with Caligula sitting on a beach on the coast of France looking out toward Britain. These opening pages draw the reader inexorably into the complex web that the authors are spinning.

But the books could not be more different. Beard expressly calls SPQR “a history of ancient Rome,” and her opening sentence bluntly asserts, “Ancient Rome is important.” Her title is the standard ancient abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, “the Senate and People of Rome,” and as she points out, it still adorns manhole covers and rubbish bins in Rome today. No one could doubt that what she has written has contemporary relevance. Her history evokes a past that visibly impinges upon the present, as modern travelers in Europe, the Balkans, Anatolia, North Africa, and the Near East are constantly made aware.

By the time Beard has finished, she has explored not only archaic, republican, and imperial Rome, but the eastern and western provinces over which it eventually won control. She deploys an immense range of ancient sources, in both Greek and Latin, and an equally wide range of material objects, from pots and coins to inscriptions, sculptures, reliefs, and temples. She moves with ease and mastery through archaeology, numismatics, and philology, as well as a mass of written documents on stone and papyrus.

‘Study for the Head of Julius Caesar’; drawing by Andrea del Sarto, circa 1520. It is on view in the exhibition at the Frick Collection reviewed by Ingrid Rowland on page 22 of this issue.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
‘Study for the Head of Julius Caesar’; drawing by Andrea del Sarto, circa 1520. It is on view in the exhibition at the Frick Collection reviewed by Ingrid Rowland in this issue.

Not unreasonably Beard brings her history to a close with the conferral of Roman citizenship by the emperor Caracalla in 212 AD upon virtually everyone who lived within the confines of the Roman Empire. What historians have traditionally called the Crisis of the Third Century was just about to begin. This brought the devastating replacement of the Parthians—an Iranian empire that had, since the first century BC, fought occasionally with the Romans—by the Sassanian Persians, who would soon invade Syria. The crisis also included barbarian invasions from the north and a great plague. The conversion of Constantine to Christianity was still a century away. Beard could not have covered those tumultuous times without writing another large volume, but she rightly looks ahead to Constantine just as she looks back to Romulus.

Holland’s book is not like this. His title, Dynasty, tells us at once, with the aid of a subtitle, The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, that this is a story rather than a work of history. It is a novel about historical events and personalities that will be familiar to most readers from Robert Graves, but it is not fiction. It reproduces, with marmoreal grandeur, what Holland has learned directly from ancient sources, above all Tacitus and Suetonius, about the court intrigues, sexual scandals, and monstrous personalities that dominated the Julio-Claudian age—the period of the first five Roman emperors—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The frightful eccentricities of the last of the Julio-Claudians included murdering his mother and presiding over a vast conflagration at Rome that has been thought to have wiped out many of the Christians in the city.

Holland’s novelistic approach enhances a story that he has not invented. This means that his account is gripping and occasionally eloquent, but sometimes the larger historical setting vanishes as he concentrates on vivid personalities at the expense of the vast empire within which all the domestic horrors were taking place. The Gibbonian miracle had been the felicitous union, in a single writer, of a thoughtful historian and a memorable narrator, but this was possible because Gibbon brought an uncommonly large vision to his scholarly and literary gifts. He famously called his work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whereas Holland seems to like single-word titles—Dynasty for the new one on the Julio-Claudians and Rubicon for an earlier one on Julius Caesar. This seems to be part of a current fashion, to judge from the work of another expert writer on Rome in a novelistic style, Robert Harris, who shows a similar predilection for single-word titles: Imperium, Conspirata, and now his forthcoming Dictator.1

By contrast, in SPQR—not a single word, of course, though admirably concise—Beard spreads out the uncertainties and inconsistencies that every historian must face in sorting out what really happened in the past. She has no hesitation in breaking the continuity of her account by jumping backward and forward to illuminate her argument and by wandering freely across the entire Mediterranean world to provide glimpses of provincial life. She is not telling a story.

Near the end of her book, in a close-up for which she draws on personal knowledge of the site, she suddenly transports her reader to the monuments and history of the city of Aphrodisias in modern Turkey—a city named for the goddess of love that, in the Christian empire, would become Stauropolis, “the city of the cross.” Splicing of this kind is indispensable in writing good history, and Beard gives her readers a master class in historical analysis, with due attention to the reliability of sources, the corruption of traditions, politically motivated myth-making, and the mysterious process by which perceptions of the past determine the course of subsequent events.

Beard begins simply enough by declaring that her account of the Senate and people of Rome will begin in the year 63 BC, the year of Catiline’s great conspiracy to overthrow the Roman Republic dominated by Julius Caesar, a plot that Cicero prided himself on exposing. She even asserts, “Roman history, as we know it, started here.” Why this should be is not at all obvious to me. Although 63 is not a bad place to start an account of the collapse of the Roman Republic, it must be said that a thoughtful eyewitness, Asinius Pollio, who wrote an influential, though now lost, account of the end of the republic, opted to begin in 60, when Pompey and Caesar became allies. This was famously the year with which the great modern historian of Rome, Ronald Syme, began his classic history, The Roman Revolution, and it was Pollio’s example that inspired him to do so.

By starting with 63, instead of 60, Beard must have known that she was repudiating the date that Syme and Pollio had adopted. She does not address this issue, but unexpectedly in the middle of her book she gives a reference to the first poem in Book Two of Horace’s Odes, where the year 60 is named as the launchpad of civil war. It was precisely in this poem that Horace celebrated the audacity of Asinius Pollio in writing a history about inflammatory events that were so recent the embers were still glowing.

To my eyes Pollio rightly marked the beginning of the civil war that brought down the Roman Republic, and it would have made more sense to start here. But even had Beard begun with this date, she would still have had to provide background from centuries before in order to give her readers the necessary perspective to understand what was going on. Beard is an experienced scholar, teacher, and communicator, and she enriches her history by preventing it from becoming a more or less chronological register of events. Her many years in front of students, colleagues, and television cameras have accustomed her to convey a wealth of information and ideas in a chatty style that no one should mistake for a lack of substance, erudition, or insight.

Beard’s relatively brief account of the Julio-Claudians is more than supplemented by the detailed narrative that Holland has provided in Dynasty. His story, though essentially centered upon Rome and its court, provides many lubricious details for which Beard has no space. Apart from the outrageous conduct of Caligula, whom professional historians scrupulously call Gaius, it is Nero who dominates the final years of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that descended from Augustus. This paranoid emperor, who loved to act and sing on stage, felt himself at heart more a Greek than a Roman, and he proceeded relentlessly, after a few tranquil years at the start, to commit crime and engage in depraved acts until his suicide in 68. Yet his reign left its mark through the magnificent Latin literature of his own time and subsequently in the retrospective literature of Western Europe down to the present.

In a wide-ranging book that is more about the perception of Nero after his death than the character of the man in his lifetime, a talented French writer, Donatien Grau, interrogates the sources for the emperor’s reign not only from Nero’s own time but from many centuries after. His book begins, as it should, with a review of the Latin masterpieces that Neronian writers, such as Seneca the philosopher, Petronius the novelist (author of the Satyricon), and Lucan the epic poet (author of the Pharsalia), have left behind. They were writing in the very years when Nero presented himself with increasing flamboyance as a Hellene, performing on stage and competing in the Olympic games.

Grau subtly creates an illuminating counterpoint between the undoubted achievements of Neronian culture and the delusions of the emperor himself. In this respect he can offer interpretations that neither Beard nor Holland attempts to provide, and he does so with an engagingly Gallic rhetoric that serves to highlight the differences between the ways Roman history is practiced on the two sides of the Channel. Grau, for example, questions Syme’s total confidence in the veracity of Tacitus by observing that in Roman studies reactions to ancient claims of accuracy and good faith have been “absolutely contradictory.”

What emerges above all from a comparison of the Nero of Beard, Holland, and Grau is that none of them really tries to get at Nero himself, beyond the caricature and criminality that appear so often in the ancient sources. Since we actually possess several letters from Nero and one long speech, it might have been useful to consider what the man reveals in lines that he may have composed himself.

We know from Tacitus that Seneca sometimes served as a ghostwriter for Nero’s speeches, and he may also have served in that capacity for letters and administrative communications. But a major speech at Corinth, coming after Seneca’s suicide, which was demanded by Nero, and composed in pretentiously florid Greek, seems obviously to transmit the emperor’s authentic voice across two millennia. Its discovery in modern times on an inscription from Akraiphia in Boeotia, north of Athens, was first made known in 1888, as Grau is aware, by the great French epigraphist Maurice Holleaux, who immediately recognized the highly personal tone of the emperor’s Greek: “le style précieux et sentimental à faux, l’emphase egoïste [the precious and falsely sentimental style, the emphatic egotism].”

Eighteen lines of text present Nero in 67 AD at Corinth, at the time of the Olympic competition nearby, when the emperor granted freedom to Greece, or rather, as it was then known, the province of Achaea. Nero was obviously very pleased with what he was doing, and his training in a style of Greek that was often described as Asian served him well. Nero’s generosity had no future, because only a few years later the emperor Vespasian revoked Nero’s gift and restored the Greeks to their prior provincial status. But the speech itself furnishes a unique glimpse into a brief moment of triumph and self-satisfaction near the pathetic end of a monarch who reportedly declared as he was dying, “What an artist dies in me!” Here is Nero to his beloved Hellenes:

For you, men of Greece, it is an unexpected gift which, even though nothing from my generous nature is unhoped-for, I grant to you—such a great gift that you would have been incapable of requesting it. All Greeks inhabiting Achaea and what is now known as the Peloponnesus, receive freedom with no taxation—something which none of you ever possessed in your most fortunate of times, for you were subject to others or to yourselves. Would that Greece were still at its peak as I grant you this gift, in order that more people might enjoy this favor of mine. For this reason I blame Time for exhausting prematurely the size of my favor. But even now it is not out of pity for you but out of goodwill that I bestow this benefaction, and I give it in exchange to your gods whose forethought for me on land and sea I have always experienced, because they granted me the opportunity of conferring such benefits. Other leaders have liberated cities, only Nero a province.

This glimpse into the emperor’s unbridled megalomania is far more precious than any attempt to deduce his character from the ancient authors who wrote about him. It is not part of later reportage or a novelistic invention, as Holland clearly recognized when he chose to cite a brief excerpt from it in his account of Nero’s Greek tour. It is a raw historical document, almost without parallel. Only the surviving text of a rambling speech by the emperor Claudius to the Senate is comparable in its immediacy, but not in its extravagant language. What Gibbon would have done with Nero’s speech if it had been known to him is hard to imagine, because in this case reality itself goes far beyond any irony.

It is of course natural to wonder what the Greeks themselves might have made of this imperial flattery of their gods and their culture through the medium of their own language at its most artificial. But the sober Plutarch, writing a decade or two after Nero’s great gesture, leaves us in no doubt that, however ridiculous Nero may have appeared at Corinth, the Greeks genuinely appreciated him as an emperor who admired their ancient traditions. Plutarch declared that for all Nero’s crimes the Hellenic peoples owed him some measure of gratitude for his goodwill toward them, and a century later Philostratus, the biographer of the legendary miracle-worker Apollonius of Tyana, said that Nero showed unusual wisdom in freeing the Greeks.

Mary Beard observes that after Nero’s death several pretenders to the imperial throne arose in the eastern Mediterranean world by claiming to be the still-living Nero. Beard astutely remarks of these so-called “false Neros” that their deception “suggests that in some areas of the Roman world Nero was fondly remembered: no one seeks power by pretending to be an emperor universally hated.” This was a strange fate for the last of the Julio-Claudians, whose memory was so detested generally that his name was systematically gouged out in most of the inscriptions in which it appeared.

Over the centuries after Nero’s death the greatest example of his megalomania undoubtedly remained the fire at Rome in 64, in which, according to Tacitus, Christians were crucified and burned alive. The authority of Tacitus has conferred upon this horror a degree of credibility that has even led historians to assume that the fiery deaths of Christians at Rome were but part of a more general policy of persecution launched by Nero. Although few now believe that the emperor promulgated some kind of institutum against the Christians, most historians, including Beard, Holland, Grau, and myself, still believe that Christians died, as Tacitus says they did, in the fire of 64.

But even this apparently solid testimony for early Christian persecution has now been forcefully challenged. Our view of Neronian Rome and early Christianity would be dramatically altered if the crucified and flaming Christians in 64 turned out to be mythical, as the Princeton historian Brent Shaw now claims they are. His recent and carefully reasoned article in support of this view rests essentially upon a conviction that it would be anachronistic to refer to Christians in 64, since he questions whether they were then identified as such. Therefore he believes that Tacitus’s version of the fire derives from a fiction, Christian or otherwise, that was devised and disseminated at some point between 64 and the time when he was writing, more than five decades later.2

Shaw’s argument is well made and persuasive at many points, but I still find it hard to believe that there were no Christians in Neronian Rome, when, at least according to the Acts of the Apostles, they were already known under that name at Antioch in the 60s. Suetonius, who was a contemporary of Tacitus and, like him, more than half a century removed from the events he was writing about, even believed that the name of Christ, whom he calls Chrestus, was known at Rome in the 40s when Claudius expelled the Jews from the city. But this may be no more than a vestige of reports that Jesus’s first followers were Jews. Nevertheless it is both important and humbling to recognize that the history with which we have all grown up can change in the twinkling of an eye when a scholar as acute and deeply read as Shaw detects cracks in an edifice we thought we knew well.

Beard is absolutely correct in her opening manifesto that Roman history is important. The world she evokes, through its material culture as much as its textual sources, is a world in which we are, as Grau insists, deeply rooted. Holland conveys its excitement and its fascination in a way that no scholarly tinkering with details can possibly diminish. All three books testify to the enduring appeal of Roman history, but in different ways. Gibbon’s theme for his great work remains as indestructible, varied, instructive, and relevant as it was in the eighteenth century. Yet when it is addressed anew, in the light of discoveries that constantly emerge from every corner of Rome’s ancient empire, Roman history itself subtly changes. That in turn means that all of us who read it and write it change too.

  1. 1

    Knopf, 2016. 

  2. 2

    Brent D. Shaw, “The Myth of the Neronian Persecution,” Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 105 (2015).