How Rome lost its virtue

Nero, depicted by 19th century artist Henryk Siemiradzki

The news right now has something of the fifth century about it, with migration maps increasingly resembling those charts showing the movements of the Huns, Franks, Vandals and Saxons during the fall of Rome.

So for a bit of escapism on holiday I just read Tom Holland’s latest excellent history book, Dynasty, about the heyday of Europe’s first civilisation, the 1st century AD.

I’m a big fan of Tom’s and his books on Greece and Rome, early medieval Europe and the birth of Islam. Not only a great writer but a gentleman too – and fans wont be disappointed by book number 5.

Dynasty recounts the lives of the first five Caesars – Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero – and continues in the same vein as the best-selling Rubicon, filled with decadent aristos, wild barbarians, intrigue, poisonings and buggery. Like any good holiday read.

The story starts with Augustus, one of the most sinister figures from the previous book, who despite being somewhat unimpressive – unlike his uncle Julius Caesar, he wasn’t a great military leader – managed to bring peace to the republic by destroying it, in a rather Darth Vader-ish way; although it was not apparent at the time that the republic was slipping away and being replaced by despotism.

There was a heavy price paid for peace, and this 400-page ancient HBO-series-in-book-form is at heart not just the story of one corrupt, entertaining family but of the death of political morality – and a warning to future generations. We tend to talk of the decadence of the late Roman Empire but it was the peak of Roman civilisation, the 1st century AD, that was truly depraved; Rome actually became more conservative in the 3rd century, a natural reaction to the decline of public morality but, inevitably, too late to stop the rot. A century later it had become even more conservative with the triumph of Christianity.

With the rise of the Caesars out went the power of the Senate and the old ruling class, and with them piety and hypocritical sexual morality, but also what Americans would call republican virtue; in came new men, ostentation, court intrigue and sexual experimentation.

We think of the emperors as being monstrous but ludicrous figures ruling over a crumbling system, but at the time they were the future, forward-looking, fashionable and high-status; their opponents were fuddy-duddies stuck in the past. Even under Augustus, conservative in a way dictators often are (Cromwell and Napoleon being good examples) power increasingly resided in the palace rather than the Senate, although ‘so sensitive was Augustus to the charge that a woman’s whisperings might sway him more effectively than the oration of a consul that he had ordered a daily record to be kept of all his household’s activities’.

Yet as rule passed to his stepson, the paranoid recluse Tiberius, and then his great-grandson Caligula in AD37, so all pretence of continuity and republicanism began to fade. The third emperor, lucky to live to a majority (his two elder brothers were both starved to death), despised the hypocrisy of Rome’s socially conservative elite and delighted in humiliating them with his extravagance.

Caligula had the children of senators act out the role of prostitutes at his private island, and abolished the class-based seating distinctions at the games, because ‘it amused him in the extreme to observe senators and equestrians scrabbling after places along with everyone else, “women next to men, slaves next to free”’.

He appealed directly to the people, as a way of humiliating the aristocracy, and so ‘When Caligula sent plebs scrabbling in the dirt after his munificence, he was reminding ambitious senators that they were no less dependent on his caprices.’

Rome was changing; large numbers of slaves were arriving into Italy, and some were rising in status. Some of these freed men, especially the educated Greeks, became influential, among them Claudius’s freedman Callistus, whose name meant gorgeous, ‘the kind of thing no self-respecting Roman would ever allow himself to be called. As a name given to a slave, though, it was the height of fashion – partly because it provided a hint of foreign sophistication, and partly because everyone knew that Greeks made the best slaves.’

Caligula was soon murdered and after his uncle Claudius took power things reached a nadir (or zenith, for the reader) with Caligula’s nephew Nero, a mad tyrant out of the 20th century who really always wanted to be an actor. Today we might say he outraged bourgeoisie sensibilities, and in the Summer of AD64 the young emperor had himself dressed and painted as a woman ‘and then, amid a blaze of wedding torches, married to one of his freedmen. Far from veiling a ceremony that could not have been more perfectly calculated to outrage conservative opinion, he staged it in public – “even the part that night hides when the bride is a woman”.’

Nero may have murdered Britannicus, Claudius’s 13-year-old son, having first raped him; he certainly killed his mother Agrippina, and kicked to death his wife Poppaea Sabina (by accident). Afterwards he ‘ordered a hunt to be made for a doppelganger’ of his late wife and stumbled on Sporus, perfect in every way except that he was a boy. In an outrage to conservative Roman sensibilities, ‘Sporus was duly arrayed in Poppaea’s robes, his hair teased into her favoured style and his face painted with her distinctive range of cosmetics…. Nero toured Greece with Sporus as his wife “borne in the litter of an Augusta and attended by a bustling train of maids”.

‘The nuptials, when they were staged during the course of Nero’s sojourn in Greece, positively screamed tradition. The bride, veiled in saffron, was given away by Tigellinus [perfect of the Praetorian Guard]; wild celebrations were held throughout the province; prayers were even raised to the gods that the happy couple would have children. Only one thing prevented the illusion from being complete: the new Poppaea Sabina’s lack of a woman’s anatomy.’

Nero even dabbled with commissioning someone to create a womb for his new wife, but this was beyond Roman engineering. Of course that didn’t matter, so much as the power principle involved; for the whole purpose of such a display was to force those around him to go along with the pretence of his creation. That is the essence of true power.

Things ended badly for Nero – they were always going to – and as the 30-year-old steeled himself for suicide, proclaimed ‘What an artist perishes with me.’ I think he would have liked the 21st century, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.