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Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius – six lives and game over for me

May 11, 2020 22 comments

Life of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (119) French title: Vie des douze Césars. Translated from the Latin by Henri Ailloud. Original title: De vita duodecim Caesarum libri.

During my (still ongoing) operation Tackle the TBR, I came across Life of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. I don’t remember when I bought it but I suppose it didn’t sound so daunting after my delightful experience with Ars Amatoria by Ovid.

Let’s say that this experience wasn’t as conclusive and to be honest, I stopped reading after Nero’s life. I read a translation that dates back to 1931/1932 and I don’t know whether it was intended for students or readers.

I remember studying passages of De rerum natura by Lucretius and being happy that the French translation was as close to the text as possible, to track down how the translation was done. However, it was unreadable for a reader with no academic purpose. Maybe this translation falls into the second category as it was a strenuous and frustrating read.

It was tiring for very practical reasons. I have a paperback copy and it’s written in very small print. I’m at the uncomfortable stage where small prints are hard to read and my eyesight is still too good for reading glasses. It was frustrating because I was reading and not remembering what I was reading, so I only have vague memories about what I read and only retained some anecdotes.

As the title of the book suggests it, Suetonius writes the bio of the twelve emperors from Julius Ceasar (1st C BC) to Domitian (1st C AD). Contrary to our usual bios, he doesn’t write chronologically but by theme. He writes about their accomplishments in the military, the kind of ruler they were, what they built, how they managed money and treated their people.

Then he explores their family and mores. Gossip Suetonius doesn’t gloss over the horrors: pedophilia, torture, overspending, whims, murders, incest, you name it, they’ve done it. And he describes their physical appearance and their health, gory details and all.

Life of the Twelve Caesars is certainly a terrific resource for historians but it was too difficult for the common reader that I am. I lacked the cultural references and the historical knowledge necessary to fully appreciate it. And the names! Even more confusing than in Russian novel.

Sure, I discovered that Caligula exhibited public diversions in Sicily, Grecian games at Syracuse, and Attic plays at Lyons in Gaul besides a contest for pre-eminence in the Grecian and Roman eloquence; in which we are told that such as were baffled bestowed rewards upon the best performers, and were obliged to compose speeches in their praise: but that those who performed the worst, were forced to blot out what they had written with a sponge or their tongue, unless they preferred to be beaten with a rod, or plunged over head and ears into the nearest river.

That’s a way to say that failure was not a option. I wonder why there’s an s at the end of Lyon and I suppose that the river was the Saône since it is the closest to the Roman part of the city.

When reading about Nero and his artistic endeavours, I thought that in today’s world, he would have been a reality TV star since above all things, he most eagerly coveted popularity, being the rival of every man who obtained the applause of the people for any thing he did. At least Nero had a decent haircut.

I smiled when I saw that Caligula’s prefect of the pretorian guard was named Macro, who became Macron in the French translation.

I didn’t know that emperors could decide to change the alphabet as Claudius did.

He besides invented three new letters, and added them to the former alphabet, as highly necessary. He published a book to recommend them while he was yet only a private person; but on his elevation to imperial power he had little difficulty in introducing them into common use; and these letters are still extant in a variety of books, registers, and inscriptions upon buildings.

Apparently, Rome was a moveable feast and caesars could also change the calendar, as Augustus did:

He restored the calendar, which had been corrected by Julius Caesar, but through negligence was again fallen into confusion, to its former regularity; and upon that occasion, called the month Sextilis, by his own name, August, rather than September, in which he was born; because in it he had obtained his first consulship, and all his most considerable victories.

 Sure, why not change the name of a month? To think that we still have that name, now!

I could go on and on with various anecdotes like this which I found in my notes and not in my memory. Sadly.

I think that Life of the Twelve Caesars is good for scholars but not so much for the common reader. We, common readers, need a middleman to dive into this. If you’re interested in Ancient Rome at the turning point between republic and empire, I highly recommend the Steven Saylor series. It’s written as crime fiction and it’s brilliant. It describes the politics, the mores and the workings of the political apparel of that time.

PS: The translation I used comes from Project Gutenberg.

An Amazing Dating Guide Book from Augustan Rome

July 22, 2010 12 comments

 I took five years of Latin at school and though I am totally unable to translate anything, I am still fascinated by Ancient Rome. The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria, in Latin) is a poem composed of three books written by Ovid about love relationships. The first two books are aimed at men and were published one or two years BC. The first part teaches them where to meet women and how to conquer them. The second part explains them how to keep their conquests. The third part is dedicated to women and was published a few years later, probably upon women’s request, according to the afterword.

In my French edition, the poem has been translated in prose, as, according to the translator, the beauty of the poetry is hardly transposable in French. I appreciate that option, the reading is light and better reveals the modernity of the subject. This translation is meant to be read as any translated book and not to be used in Latin classes to train students. These translations are heavy because they stick to the text very closely to help students find their way in the puzzle of Latin language, which has a tricky way to construct sentences. However, I’m sorry for the English quotes, I didn’t find a version translated in prose in English, and I didn’t want to translate a translation. My edition also has many footnotes to explain the references to mythology and it is really helpful. Unfortunately, the numerous play-on-words included in the Latin text are impossible to translate, but it’s good to know Ovid was also witty and funny.

 The advice given to men explain how to act, how to be handsome and all the tricks that can be used to seduce and be loved. Some passages are incredibly modern, as this one, which could take place in a classroom or a cinema:

Don’t forget the races, those noble stallions:

the Circus holds room for a vast obliging crowd.

No need here for fingers to give secret messages,

nor a nod of the head to tell you she accepts:

You can sit by your lady: nothing’s forbidden,

press your thigh to hers, as you can do, all the time:

and it’s good the rows force you close, even if you don’t like it,

since the girl is touched through the rules of the place.

Now find your reason for friendly conversation,

and first of all engage in casual talk.

Make earnest enquiry whose those horses are:

and rush to back her favourite, whatever it is.

When the crowded procession of ivory gods goes by,

you clap fervently for Lady Venus:

if by chance a speck of dust falls in the girl’s lap,

as it may, let it be flicked away by your fingers:

and if there’s nothing, flick away the nothing:

let anything be a reason for you to serve her.

If her skirt is trailing too near the ground,

lift it, and raise it carefully from the dusty earth:

Straight away, the prize for service, if she allows it,

is that your eyes catch a glimpse of her legs.”

I know it’s a long quote, but it shows how eternal Ovid’s words are and how mankind remains the same in its intimate behaviours. The whole books are full of insightful details about dating, even if some advice sound outdated, insulting for women sometimes or if I don’t share his point of view on infidelity.

 To women, Ovid offers beauty advice: comb you hair, choose your clothes in the colour that suits you best, use make-up with intelligence, shave your legs and armpits but beware that all this work remains inconspicuous. Isn’t this amazingly up-to-date?

Then Ovid gives a definition of an accomplished woman, which has been perfectly summed up by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her hair and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions or the word will be but half deserved.” and “to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” No change some 1800 years later. What Ovid describes but of course not Jane Austen is which position a woman should prefer while making love, depending on her physical appearance.

 What sounds also contemporary is his way of claiming equality in pleasure, which has been denied to women during centuries. For a Roman of his time, this was shocking too, as women were considered as passive beings. He also calls for equality in the right of having love affairs, as in this passage:

Secret love’s just as pleasing to women as men.

Men pretend badly: she hides her desire.

If it was proper for men not to be the first to ask,

woman’s role would be to take the part of the asker.”

 In the end, this guiding book smells like freedom. Freedom to love. Freedom to dispose of one’s body. Freedom to have a private life and to prefer a rich intimate life to a wealthy public one. It’s only an evening read and it’s refreshing.

I can’t explain right how strange it feels to connect to the mind of a man who lived such a long time ago and still feel close sometimes. It’s the same perception to be flirting with eternity as I the one I experience when I hear concerts in Antique theatres. A feeling to walk on an eternal path.

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