Ruminations on Anthony Everitt’s Augustus and Tacitus’ Annals
Celebrity sex scandals, marriage and remarriage, the convolutions of temporary, loveless relationships – they’re all the trashy hallmarks of our day and age, right? Well, yes . . . but we shouldn’t think we’re unique, that civilisation is somehow tipping towards moral catastrophe. Next time you reach for People magazine, read the latest episode of Britney Spears’ sad derangement or wonder how happy Woody Allen is a decade into marriage to his ex-wife’s adopted daughter, remember that the Romans did it first. And, yes, they did it much better.
Sure, everyone knows the Romans weren’t saints. Most of you have probably heard of Roman orgies, even though they had more to do with gluttony than libido. Caligula, by all accounts, was fond of fornication – and we’ll meet him again soon – but even for him it wasn’t just sex and sweat.
Reading Anthony Everitt’s biography of Augustus Caesar recently I was struck by the melodrama in his account of the machinations between the First Citizen himself, his co-ruler and former son-in-law Mark Antony, and Egypt’s Macedonian queen, Cleopatra. In Everitt’s defence, he relies heavily on the writing of Cassius Dio and Appian, who are still the best we’ve got. And the situation was, even for the standard of the times, a little tawdry.
Everitt makes the point several times that sex, love and social relations were intertwined but by no means inseparable as the Roman Republic breathed its last. That Cleopatra was a sexual conquest for Augustus and Antony was largely incidental to her role in the politics of the coming Empire. She was both a chattel and a subordinate ruler: one did not necessarily imply the other.
And a particularly interesting sideshow to the whole affair – something that has been obscured by the popularity of Shakespeare’s tale of impossible love, Antony and Cleopatra – is that the queen had also been lover to Julius Caesar, Augustus’ great uncle and adoptive father, and bore old Juli a son. You might like to think of her as an astute ruler, working her wiles on the strong men of the region. Or you could think of her as the Paris Hilton of the ancient Mediterranean.
History, as I mentioned again recently, is always a judgemental narrative, both for historians and for their audiences. What I’m describing here goes beyond the scope of Anthony Everitt’s narrative, but most of the detail resides within it, waiting to be reinterpreted a little less formally.
Still, as he passes the end of Augustus’ life and looks at the first emperors and the decline of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Everitt loosens up a bit. Actually, he does that at the front of the book as well, if you read between the lines of the intriguing family tree he offers. The image is of a house divided, reunited, and glued back together at odd angles.
Augustus died old and particularly accomplished, but he had to leave his position to Tiberius, the son of his second wife Livia by her first marriage. By now sole ruler, the old boy wasn’t too happy with this even though he had adopted Tiberius, and in his will also adopted Livia, allowing her to retain much of his wealth. So the man who was adopted by his own great uncle, who vied with his own former son-in-law to bed Cleopatra, who adopted the step-son he didn’t even like, also adopted his own wife.
And it went downhill from there.
Power skipped a generation for a while, and settled upon Caligula, Livia’s great-grandson, he of the whorehouse in the forum. When the mad fool died it turned out that his uncle, Claudius, wasn’t as feeble as it seemed, and under his firm hand the Empire righted itself. Claudius even oversaw the conquest of the rude tribes of the British Isles, which was an impressive extension of Roman military logistics and tactical strength. But for his second wife he took Agrippina, his niece, and the rot really set in.
Agrippina murdered her husband and installed in power a son by her first marriage: “Nero, still almost a boy and emperor only by crime”, as Tacitus wrote in his Annals. Not incidentally, he was also Claudius’ adopted son and son-in-law, having married the then emperor’s daughter from his first marriage when only sixteen. Still, it was a step up from uncle Caligula, who was reputedly very fond of his own horse.
Penguin recently released extracts from the Annals under the rather fitting title The Madness of Nero. It’s a small book well worth reading if you’re interested in ancient Rome, not only for the descriptions of political life, but also for vitriol with which Tacitus describes the transition of power. But spare a thought for Nero. In marrying Claudius’ daughter he married his own aunt and step-sister; his mother was also his great aunt by marriage. Not surprisingly he was a little addle-brained.
Nero committed suicide in AD 68, and it’s a little perplexing that the whole Empire didn’t just keel over with him. Yet the truly big zinger is closer to home. We often look back and don’t see enough of ourselves in the past. The puzzle is not that Rome survived, but that the Western world recognises so little of the sullied Empire in its own casual misbehaviour.