Rhapsody in Penguins — Third Movement: The Twelve Caesars

Before we begin: this post will be slightly less organized because it’s non-fiction (which I don’t function well in), and I was forced to find a new perspective from which to look at the book. As such it might seem a little clumsy at times. I promise that I’ll get better for next week. And now:

The Twelve Caesars
by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus
translated by Robert Graves (1957)

(Ooh look, I’m talking about history and truth on Friday the 13th. What could possibly go wrong?)

Since coming into CUHK I have seen an interesting variety of T-shirts, ranging from the quirky to the slightly disturbing (or as people might call it, sophisticated). I don’t have a definite favourite, but I do remember one from the Department of History with perfect clarity (all together now: TRAITOR TO THE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT). This had a quote from the author Samuel Butler on the back: “God cannot change the past, though historians can.”

It’s a very interesting quote (though I prefer Napoleon’s “history is a set of lies agreed upon”). What we tend to think of as history is at times hazy and really undefined, and there are so many cases where what we call history isn’t as reliable as we might think or hope it to be. A prime example of this would be Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus’ “The Twelve Caesars”. As with most books from Roman times, it pretty much does what it says on the tin: it catalogues the lives of the first eleven emperors (you know, the ones Suetonius could write about without risking his neck) plus that of Julius Caesar. Pretty simple fare…

But look closer at the title: it doesn’t promise to be a description of Rome under the Caesars, but of the Twelve Caesars themselves. It’s about people, not the state. So this is a biography, and not general history — and it’s from here that our troubles begin.

Suetonius seems to have added a LOT of gossip to his book. There are tons of little anecdotes about the emperors stuffed between their major socio-political actions (a bit like what a university professor trying to liven up his lectures would do), so much so that the Introduction in the Penguin Classics edition has to explicitly state:

…The Twelve Caesars is not simply the ancient equivalent of a scandal sheet.

When you have to use this as the INRODUCTORY line to a book, you know that you’re in trouble.

To be fair to Suetonius, though, most of the gossip he writes down is true. He was, after all, a historian and researcher first and foremost, and he had many resources on his hands (including the royal archives, but he lost that after he got a bit casual with the Empress). On the other hand, he didn’t really give a damn about whether he was actually writing the truth: he apparently loved including unverified little titbits, so he is also single-handedly responsible for some of the biggest lies we have about the Roman Empire. For instance, regarding the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, Suetonius says:

Pretending to be disgusted by the drab old buildings and narrow, winding streets of Rome, [Nero] brazenly set fire to the city… Nero watched the conflagration from the tower in the Gardens of Maecenas [near Rome], enraptured by what he called ‘the beauty of the flames’, then put on his tragedian’s costume and sang ‘The Fall of Troy’ from beginning to end.

Although historians generally believe that Nero was very much responsible for what happened that year, the story of him putting on opera at the same time is PATENTLY untrue (Nero was 35 miles from Rome during the beginning stages, and unless someone would like to prove me wrong, a huge fire more than 50 kilometres away is not very visible). But the legend’s persisted, and today it’s Suetonius we have to thank for the story that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” (note to self: stop singing in public).

But note a second thing that is included in this passage: dramatic flair. You don’t see that a lot in history books. Maybe a few side comments (“Nero was extremely unwise in setting fire to Rome”, etc., etc.) but from the few history books I’ve read absolutely nobody would use such condemnatory and colourful language as “brazenly” and “enraptured”, and it’s these words that vastly increase our credulity. Forget about whether it actually happened, we can believe it because of the force with which Suetonius tells us this. And who needs any other proof?

It’s little stories like this, framed as the absolute truth and yet seemingly forbidden to the public eye, that form part of the appeal of The Twelve Caesars. There is a sort of conspiratorial tone to all of them as you read along, gaining access to knowledge about things that you feel like you’re not supposed to know. Even as you drink in story after incredible story, you can’t help but think “gosh, I never knew he was like that, but I guess it’s possible”.

And yet.

I feel that in reading all of this, we still fail to ask one question: could this be all real? Am I supposed to believe all of this? Because while Suetonius presents all of this as hard and solid fact, nowadays we’re hampered by our knowledge that he was both biased and vulnerable to adding untrue gossip in (sounds very different from our day). In between the two sentences of that last paragraph, a sliver of doubt — or maybe even common sense — would lead us to say “this seems too strange to be true”. But we look at all these ridiculous acts and we do not dismiss it as hearsay.

The strange thing is: this hearsay seems immensely believable to us. We think that it’s completely plausible that the emperors — all mere humans like US, mind you — could be capable of such an act. Our incredulity collapses as we read further and further — Julius Caesar being a bedmate for a foreign king, Caligula’s penchant for crossdressing as Venus, Domitian’s habit of spearing flies with his pen — ever widening our margin for acceptance, and if perchance we happen to look back at all of this after we have struggled through about 150 years of Roman history, we have no sense of wonder or disbelief. We have accepted that these people are capable of absolutely anything, and it’s only human for them. The conspiratorial tone, coupled with Suetonius’ strong, judgmental use of language, makes us feel privileged and in the right, not nosey and excessively curious, for knowing things usually reserved for the closest of the emperors’ friends.

And despite that voice in our head telling us to use caution, we will throw ourselves willingly into believing small stories such as those in the Twelve Caesars. It’s strange, really, how we humans are drawn to scandal. Every day we open the newspapers or find someone to talk to, just to dig up juicy stories on somebody else. Of course, we can’t help it: our demand for buzz is simply insatiable, and these shady thrills offer just a little bit of excitement in our dreary lives (I would know). It’s really just human nature to look for stuff like this. But at the same time, we mindlessly process them into our brains without stopping to consider their veracity: they might be wildly exaggerated, but we don’t give a damn anymore. That story of Nero’s is just too believable, and so we fall for it, hook, line and sinker. The result? 2000 years of a falsehood that just refuses to die.

In our modern day society, you would be hard-pressed to go twenty seconds on Facebook without discovering yet another sensational story on your friends or people in your society (or others). These stories might be heartwarming or downright scandalous, but we take them as they are immediately, not doubting their veracity. But do we plant the seeds for the legacy of untruths when we do that unthinkingly? Perhaps that’s why we buy Suetonius’ stories, or even Napoleon’s words upstairs. They seem so anarchic, so weird, so wonderful, and so true. The operative word here: “seem”.

Next time: Some of the emperors were famous money-grubbers and loved nothing more than to steal from their own people. Our next book also features robbers who also liked stealing from their fellowmen, and people loved it so much that they came to write an entire musical on it. It’s “Oliver Twist”, guys!

(Quotations from the Penguin edition of “The Twelve Caesars”, translated by Robert Graves, edited by James Rives and published 2007, featured photo from the cover of aforementioned book.)

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