Show Us You Care, Ma’am

No one in Britain had ever witnessed scenes like those evoked by the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (to give her for once her correct title); of Princess Diana, as we all incorrectly called her. It was not merely the extraordinary display of public emotion, the mountains of flowers, the avalanches of letters, the queues waiting eight hours to sign one of forty books of condolence, the visible distress of the most unlikely people. Much more startling was the sight of the royal family forced onto the defensive by a tidal wave of public grief; the Queen and Prince Charles accused of lack of emotion, of failing to join the national mood, of stinginess with official signs of mourning. Why was no flag flying at half mast over Buckingham Palace? Why were the royal family secluding themselves at Balmoral, their Scottish estate, instead of letting it all hang out in London? Where were the royal sobs, the hugs, the melting gestures of a grief which they should allow to take its natural course, in front of the cameras? Why had the Queen made no personal statement? The Palace was forced to make one hasty concession after another. Finally a flag was flown, and finally the Queen appeared on television to make the statement that the nation was waiting for. “Her eyes were red,” people assured each other.

Was it all the work of the tabloid press? It certainly did, in the second half of the week, orchestrate a campaign clearly intended to shift the public anger from the paparazzi and the press onto another target, the royal family. Without the tabloids could it have happened? Recent discoveries in the history of ancient Rome offer remarkable parallels and suggest that the press is a luxury, not a necessity.

Two long inscriptions have come to light in Spain, the first published in 1984, the second in 1996, recording the official version of events narrated at length by the historian Tacitus: the death, mourning, and avenging of the dashing young prince Germanicus, nephew of the dour and unpopular Emperor Tiberius. Beloved by the people, especially (Tacitus tells us) because the Emperor was thought to dislike him, Germanicus died in the East. He had been sent out with Piso, a senior aristocrat, who was to keep an eye on his impetuous and rather irresponsible nature. The people assumed that Piso had murdered him, and conspiracy theories named Tiberius and Tiberius’ mother, Livia, as responsible.

There was bitter resentment against the Emperor and his mother for failing to grieve; they did not appear in public, “thinking it beneath their dignity to weep in public, or afraid that peo-ple would see their hypocrisy if they mourned.” The funeral was criticized as insufficiently lavish and elaborate. Tiberius tried in vain to damp down the dangerous mood of anger and recall the people to the Roman tradition of stoical endurance.

Extraordinary honors were voted to Germanicus’ memory. Piso was nearly lynched; he was prosecuted…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.