Sunday, June 17, 2012

One-and-a-half Caesars

I don’t know why, but I still assume that every book from the classical age will be boring. And yet almost every time they pleasantly surprise me. (There’s always an exception: Ovid’s Metamorphoses struck me just the way I thought all ancient books would. We’ll see what I think the next time I read it, near the end of the ten-year plan.) So far, the Twelve Caesars of Suetonius has surprised me immensely.

I’ve only read one-and-a-half Caesars at this point, but I’ve already encountered a lot of interesting material, some familiar and some new to me. Here’s Julius Caesar’s Veni, vidi, vici (along with Suetonius’ helpful observation that the phrase expresses not so much the order of events as their speed) and “The die is cast” and “You, too?” And here’s Augustus in all his hypocritical glory, alternately exhibiting mercy and cruelty, and making marriage laws for the good of society while he divorces twice and continues to have adulterous affairs after finding a wife he can stick with (Livia, whom he stole away from her husband). I have trouble keeping the braided genealogies straight and remembering the difference between a quaestor and an aedile, but the characters and the atmosphere are palpable.

Suetonius seems to try to stay fair about his subjects. Julius has his strengths, to be sure; but the biographer likes to explore his weaknesses and vices just as much, if not more. The Dictator comes out looking purely ambitious; his occasional displays of virtue all seem to spring from convenience or squeamishness. Augustus, by comparison, has no squeamish compunctions to keep him from sometimes torturing a political enemy with his own hands. He forgives people sometimes, but apparently at random. And yet his foresight and energy expanded the empire by both conquest and alliance and famously transformed Rome from a town of bricks to a city of marble.

I’m trying to figure out just what this fellow was like. Suetonius says Augustus bothered little with his clothing or hair, and preferred simple, cheap furniture, as if he took no thought of the privilege his station brought him. Yet he collected giant fossil bones and other curiosities, treasures that he surely gained only because he had unlimited power. He made sure to engage the shiest dinner guests in conversation, indicating a sensitivity to others’ feelings. And yet the presents he gave friends and associates sometimes consisted of gold and other treasures and sometimes of a poker or tongs for the fireplace, as if he took no thought at all for what the recipient might think. He liked to be by himself, usually with a good book, and he usually slept on a simple, low bed. But he expected a slave to fan him all night long. Was he particular about comfort or not? Did he consider himself alone when a slave stood nearby? As I quoted a couple of days ago, there’s no frigate like a book to take us lands away. And so far my latest excursion to imperial Rome is quite vivid.

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