Seutonius was a gossipy old fuck, but he was thorough, and covered good ground, and gives a sort of horrifying contemporary view of what from my position looks like absolute madness. First of all, it was great to get the play by play of Julius Caesar’s career, and how and why he maneuvered his way to the purple. The way Seutonius makes it out, Caesar had overseen some funny business from his time as consul, and was afraid to come back to Rome after governing a province because he thought his political political enemy Marcus Cato was going to bring him up on charges. Plus, based on 50 pages of Livy and 600 of Gibbon it’s obvious that civil war came very naturally to the Romans.
He spends the most time on Caesar, and then another big bunch of time on Augustus, who seems like quite a fellow, and then after that you’ve got ten despotic madmen, each one worse than the last, wielding total power for obscene indulgence in luxury and sadism, paired with deep paranoia, and downright kookiness. Seutonius follows a set formula, and so you can count on him rattling through the details of their rise to power, and eventually like clockwork detailing the flavor and instances of depravity that particular emperor, which in some cases is pretty lengthy. He also always closes with what they looked like.
Aside from the kinky stuff, what I found pretty interesting was the robbery. These guys just flat out stole from everyone in sight. Augustus collects taxes like a diligent head bureaucrat, but some of these guys just raped and pillaged their own people. Nero used to loot shops at night and sell the stuff out of his rooms. Caligula was so ready to slit anyone’s throat that he could convince senators to buy his used couch for their entire fortune, leading more than one to kill themselves in despair. Several of them seemed to encourage being named in wills, and then took to killing people with good nest eggs. It’s quite brazen.
It’s also amazing that anyone would want the job, since it always ended at the end of a blade. Domitian claimed that “all emperors are necessarily wretched, since only their assassination can convince the public that the conspiracies against their lives are real.” Domitian, of course, was stabbed to death in his bedroom, stabbed in his groin, in fact. Caligula was stabbed while soldiers swung his daughter by the ankles to bash out her brains. Nero stabbed himself in the throat to avoid being punished “in the old fashion” by the senate, which consisted of putting your head in a fork, and then flogging you to death with sticks. Galba was killed on the side of the road and left where he fell, only to be decapitated by a solidier who happened to walk by. Life was cheap in old Rome.
Vitellius had among the worst ends. He was on the losing end of a civil war, and for some reason opted out of the escape hatch abidication that had been agreed to, holding on to power to the last. As Vaspasian closes in on Rome Vitellius basically freaks out and tries to go to to his country house, but then heads back to the palace, which is now deserted, as all his aides and servants have deserted him except his cook and his valet. And then when they bail on him too, he shoved some gold into his money belt, and hid in the servant’s quarters. The mattress he wedged against the door did little but annoy the advance guard that was searching the palace for him. After a feeble lie about who he was, they discovered the truth, and he was pretty roughly divested of the purple. They put a noose around his neck, a blade under his chin, and dragged him to the Forum. Dung and filth were flung at him along the way, insults hurled, and a general mockery made of him. He’d raped the city pretty roughly in his time, so it’s no wonder the crowd was so lively. The soldiers then “put him through the torture of the little cuts before finally killing him near the Gemonian Stairs. Then they dragged his body to the Tiber with a hook and threw him in.” Whenever they need to drag a body to the Tiber, someone always produces a hook for the job.
I found Nero’s story pretty unreal. He came to power more or less by maneuvering his way to it, but once he had power he turned to his true passion, which was to become a famous singer, I kid you not. He entered festivals, and held competitions, and travelled widely to compete around the world. He was incredibly vain about it, and before he died he lamented the world’s loss of a great artist. You can just imagine how crappy he probably was.
But Nero was also a good case study in just weird depravity that it’s sort of amazing was tolerated, given the Roman’s general willingness to overthrow the ruling power by force. But Nero was allowed to basically be a monster, and everyone helped him along cheerfully, by all accounts. One of his favorite things to do was to go prowling the city at night, and attack men who were walking home from the pubs, kill them, and drop their bodies in the sewer. Once he got into a bit of a scrape, and after that he always had guards follow at a discrete distance. Think about that, and what that guard might have been thinking. Nero also had seriously fucked up sexual habits. He became so jaded with all of the ramant everything that “he at last invented a novel game: he was released from a den dressed in the skins of wild animals, and attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes. After working up sufficient excitement by this means, he was finished off – shall we say – by his freedman Doryphorus.” He eventually married Doryphorous, and screamed like a virgin bride on his wedding night. I think he eventually had him poisoned.
You see alot of the same thing in Gibbon, these just shocking glimpses of how things were, but Seutonius being a contemporary gossip puts it in a different light. He gets to wax indignant, of course, but he doesn’t ever question the rightness of their place on the throne. Seutonius never says who he works for, but I gather he was a courtier to Trajan or Hadrian, so presumably they weren’t monsters in these kinds of ways, but probably they were monsters in other ways.
Anyway, if you’re looking for a good diversion, perhaps even a vacation read, I can heartily recommend Seutonius.
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