The First Chapter, The Children of the Wolf, sketches the early history of Rome from Romulus and Remus (did Remus freely offer his life as a sacrifice when Romulus was building Rome or was he murdered by his twin brother?), through the expulsion of the kings, through to the First Triumvirate of Julius Caesar, politician and brilliant general who enslaved all of Gaul and invaded Britain too, Pompey the Great, brilliant general whose quasi private armies built an empire in the middle east, and Crassus, fabulously wealthy banker and brilliant general whose defeat and death at the hands of the Parthians unbalanced the triumvirate into a civil war finally won by Caesar. And then comes a remarkable piece of writing in which Holland describes the pivotal events of 15th February 44BC, "a few days after Caesar's appointment as 'Dictator for Life'," (p 24) the feast of the Lupercal. "The date was a potent one, both joyous and haunted ... stalked by the dead, who had been known to mark the festival by rising from their graves and roaming the streets. ... In the mouth of the [Lupercal] cave, below the branches of the sacred fig tree, oiled men known as Luperci, naked save for a loincloth of goatskin, stood shivering in the winter breeze. Also maDe of goatskin were the thongs they held in their hands, and which women on the crowds below, many of them stripped to the waist, would invariably blush to see waved in their direction. Naturally, it took a certain physique to carry off a loincloth - and especially so in February." (pp 24 - 25) Even so, Marc Antony, a forty year old magistrate, had joined the Luperci. The Luperci ran through the streets, whipping the half-naked women with their thongs "on a day when the human mingled with the wolvish, the carnal with the supernatural" (p 26). And when Antony runs down the Forum to the Rostrum he encounters Caesar on a golden throne "dressed in the ancient costume of the city's kings: purple toga and calf-length boots in fetching red leather." (p 26) Antony then presents Caesar with a laurel diadem. "A few desultory rounds of applause greeted the gesture. Otherwise all was leaden silence. Then Caesar, after a pause, pushed the diadem away - and the Forum echoed to tremendous cheering ... And so the experiment failed." (p 27) And one month later, Brutus, descendant of the Brutus who had chased Rome's last king from the city, led the assassination of Caesar. "And wolves, in lofty cities, made the nights echo with their howls." (p 28)Tremendous writing: political theatre mingled with sex and superstition: can you get a more potent mix?
Chapter Two is entitled Back to the Future. We learn about the chaos of civil war following the assassination of Caesar: first between the new triumvirate of wealthy nigh priest Lepidus, Marc Antony and youthful nobody (but Caesar's heir) Octavian; next when the triumvirs fell out. Aristocratic Livia was wife to Tiberius Nero who aligned himself with Antony in an Italian revolt against Octavian: soon the young couple with their baby Tiberius were fleeing, first to Sicily, next to Greece "before being forced on the run again. As they made their escape through a forest, a fire broke out. Livia's dress was left charred. Even her hair was singed." (p 45). Months later she was shagging Octavian and a divorce was quickly arranged. Tiberius Nero, exchanging an unfaithful wife for a pardon for rebellion, "gave his former wife away" at the wedding! (p 46)
The soldiers who had fought for Octavian were now rewarded with land confiscated from enemies or non-combatants (shades of Zimbabwe). This was in towns outside Roman that had once been her neighbours, then her possessions and were coming to be co-cities of the Republic even though the peoples were sometimes primitive, such as the Marsians "whose singing could make snakes explode." But the land confiscations and continuing piracy brought famine to Rome, threatening the regime to the extent that when the bodies of those killed in riots were slung into the Tiber "gangs of desperate thieves waded out and stripped them bare ... Nothing was left them save to scavenge corpses."
Despite the rumours about the sexual promiscuity of Octavian (now renamed Augustus) himself, Roman citizens were expected to control themselves. "Unchecked sexual appetites, while only to be expected in a woman - or, of course, a Greek - were hardly appropriate to a citizen ... No man could be reckoned truly a man who was the slave of his own desires. Playboys who chased after married women were well known to be womanish themselves. The Princeps, it was whispered, smoothed his legs by singeing off their hairs with red-hot nut shells." (p 100) Ovid, the poet, on the other hand was a young man who enjoyed sex "When Ovid strolled up to Apollo's temple ... it was not to admire the architecture. He was scoping out girls." (p 105) After all, the phallus was "everywhere to be seen" and "much admired. A generously endowed man hitting the bath-house might well be greeted with 'a round of nervous applause'." (p 106) But sex was for men and whores. Cuckolding another citizen carried ferocious penalties: death for the woman and death or castration for the man. "For a man to shave his armpits was ... simply good manners but to .... depilate the legs was disgusting, plain and simple. Body hair was the mark of a man." (p 108) The feast of Liber, however, allowed sexual license. "Everybody slept with everybody else" (p 112) although Julia, daughter to Augustus and wife to his consigliere Agrippa, when asked how her sons looked so much like their father joked "because I only ever take on passengers after the cargo-hold has been loaded." (p 122).
One of the keys to the success of Augustus was that he mapped out the poor districts of Rome, focusing his attention on the cross-roads, where he organised the local authorities, including the Vigiles "crack squads of firefighters ... mandated to police the streets as well as to put out conflagrations." (p 140).
Chapter 4 is about Tiberius, a very interesting character. A successful general and the step-son of Augustus, Tiberius was an organiser, an administrator, a thorough and painstaking man, with very little charisma, a highly aristocratic attitude and a dislike of the mob. Protesting not to want to be Emperor he nevertheless managed to rule by terror which included starving to death several members of his own family. When he retired to Capri he took many aristocratic children as hostages. They were then used as performers in pornographic stage shows and "obliged to pose as prostitutes, to hawk for business like the lowest class of sex worker, to perform sometimes three or four at a time". (p 253)
Chapter 5 is about Caligula, who grew up at his uncles pornographic court on Capri. Caligula was his nickname because as a toddler he became the idol and the mascot of the military camp which his dad, Germanicus, was in charge of. Utterly unlike the austere Tiberius, Caligula staged games and shows and courted the popularity of the masses; at the same time he terrorised the Senate. "What Capri had been to Tiberius, the whole of Rome was now to his heir: a theatre of cruelty and excess" (p 287) He killed and tortured, he tormented parents by making them view the death of one of their children and then kept them subservient because they had other children, he brought Capri to the Palatine Hill and made the aristocratic women and children hostages have sex with paying plebs. But he tormented one member of his guard too far and the man assassinated him.
The pendulum swung, as they do, and Chapter 6 (Io Saturnalia) is about Caligula's elderly uncle Claudius, previously passed over in the succession because he was lame and dribbly and altogether ill-fitting the Roman ideal of manhood. He understood the coup that had led to his succession and his first actions was to award massive bonuses to the Praetorian Guard, He then developed a sort of meritocracy in which powerful positions were given to men who had started out life as slaves, or the sons of slaves, such as Callistus, whose name meant 'Gorgeous'. Clearly, following the humiliations heaped on it by Caligula, the Senate's traditional exclusivity and rights were to be further eroded. "Everything we now believe to be the essence of tradition ... was a novelty once" (p 371 quoting Tacitus quoting Claudius) For example, despite the law saying that only slaves could be tortured, in the aftermath of a conspiracy against Claudius he employed torturers ("specialists skilled in the art of extracting information tended to be found among private firms of undertakers", p 311) against free men.
Claudius needed to boost his macho and virile image and launched campaigns against the Moors (who were renowned for "their high standards of dental hygiene" and "tribes so unspeakably savage that they ate flesh raw and thought nothing of drinking milk"); having conquered the Atlas Mountains their general Suetonius Paulinus was then sent to conquer Britain who "were, if anything, even more barbarous than the Germans. They painted themselves blue; they held their wives in common; they wore hair on the upper lip, an affectation so grotesque that Latin did not have a word for it." (p 315).
When Nero took over, probably by poisoning Claudius having been made his heir and still too young to shave, he was ruled by his mother Agrippina. "Bitter and humiliated, Nero vented his fury in the readiest way available, by repeatedly sodomising his stepbrother. Rape was, of course, the most physically brutal means a Roman had of asserting his dominance over a rival." Shortly afterwards Britannicus, Nero's stepbrother and heir, choked to death at a feast.
Nero and his tutor Seneca were in charge of the world. "Seated as he was at the heart of the great web of Roman power, he only had to tug upon a single thread of it for villages at the far end of the world to be trampled down by soldiers, and women left bruised and bleeding." (p 368)
Rome was becoming a cosmopolitan city. This in itself engendered dislike of immigrants. As then, now. "Meanwhile ... in the teeming streets of a city whose population now numbered well over a million, many had begun to wonder what precisely it meant to talk of the Roman people. Rome ... had been founded on immigration. Exotic languages had been heard in the city for centuries. ... Yet even as many Romans saw in their city's diversity the homage paid by the world to its greatness, and a potent source of renewal, so others were less convinced. All very well to host immigrants, so long as they ended up Roman; but what if they preserved their barbarous ways, infecting decent citizens with their superstitions? ... A sobering reflection, to be sure: that to serve as the capital of the world might render Rome less Roman." (p 372)
As well as all this, this book has some great side issues:
- "Whether in his worsening health, in the person of a decrepit and toothless porter whom he had last seen as a handsome slaveboy, or in a clump of gnarled plane trees planted by his own hand in hoe youth, he found marks of decay everywhere." (p 379)
- "Everyone knew that people only ever suffered poverty because they deserved it." (p 324)
- The Praetorian Guard was named because it was the unit of a praetor, a commander.
- A legionary swore a sacred oath called the sacramentum.
- What have the Germans ever done for the Romans? The introduced Rome to "a curious concoction fashioned out of goat lard and ashes named 'soap' ... the miraculous product could give a hint of gold to even the dullest locks" although used to excess it might make you go bald.
- "Stepmothers in Rome were widely presumed to be malignant." (p 171)
- "It is in the nature of kings that they will hold good men in more suspicion than the bad, and dread the talents of others." (p 6; quoting Sallust The Conspiracy of Catiline)
- "Who ... could rival the Greeks when it came to the shaping of bronze or marble, the mapping of the stars or the penning of sex manuals?" (p 5)
Beautifully written by the man who has also written Rubicon (the prequel to this book, about Julius Caesar), Persian Fire (Darius the Mede and his mates), Millennium (about the year 1000) and In the Shadow of the Sword (an exploration of the origins of Islam). December 2016; 419 pages