Giovanni Paolo Panini / Bridgeman Images
Show Hide image

The gangsters of Rome: the brutal side of the ancient city

The Roman emperors created a world that seems modern but contains unspeakable horrors, as new books by Mary Beard and Tom Holland reveal.

Soon after Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44BC, a comet was seen streaking across the Italian skies for seven successive days. The soothsayers and astronomers soon agreed that the portent represented Caesar’s soul ascending to the heavens, “there to be received among the spirits of the immortal gods”.

Today, thankfully, we may no longer deify our politicians, but Mary Beard represents the nearest thing in contemporary academe: a semi-deified don and an object of worship, both by the Senate House and by the people. Her new work, SPQR, is probably her most ambitious yet, a magisterial history of Rome which attempts to understand “how a tiny and very unremarkable little village in central Italy became so dominant a power over so much territory in three continents”.

Professor Beard tops and tails her account of the rise of the Roman empire by laying out why she believes its study – to which, she says, she has “given a good deal of the past fifty years of my life” – is still not only relevant, but very important, so giving her own answer to the celebrated Monty Python conundrum: “What did the Romans ever do for us?” Rome, she explains, “still helps define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves”:

After 2,000 years it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.

. . . The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond. The main reason that London is the capital of the

United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province Britannia . . . Rome has bequeathed to us ideas of liberty and citizenship as much as of imperial exploitation, combined with a vocabulary of modern politics, from “senators” to “dictators”.

She concludes: “Many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.”

The publication of SPQR coincides with another excellent book covering much the same territory, Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland, the other contender for the laurel wreath of being Britain’s most widely read and industrious classicist. The two books differ slightly in their aims: Holland focuses on the century-long rise and fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, while Beard takes a longer view, from Romulus and Remus right up to the early 3rd century AD. The near-simultaneous release of these books, written in intriguingly different styles, can only sharpen an unspoken rivalry for dominance over the classical world, the modern literary equivalent of the showdown between austere Augustus – who nonetheless had a genius for good publicity and keeping himself in the public eye – and the more flamboyant Mark Antony. In this Actium, however, there are two winners.

Mary Beard is the more academic and measured of the two. Analytical and judicious, she is constantly weighing the archaeological evidence against that of written texts, and she watches the frontiers of the Roman empire with the assurance and authority of a senior umpire calling a wicket. Holland is concerned more with building an engrossing narrative, and in diving deep into the human and biographical forces driving Roman history. He is a witty and skilful storyteller, capable of penning penetrating psychological portraits of the monsters who form his subject: he notes with relish that Caligula is “one of the few people from ancient history to be as familiar to pornographers as to classicists”. He recounts with pleasure his racy tales of psychopathic cruelty, incest, paedophilia, matricide, fratricide, assassination and depravity.

Holland is quite correct that the history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (that is, the first five Roman emperors – Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero) seems to have “sprung from some fantasy novel or TV box-set”:

Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools; Caligula, lamenting that the Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through . . . Nero, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted centre of Rome. For those who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion, the story might well seem to have everything.

Indeed – though for those who prefer their Rome without testicle-licking, Professor Beard may be the safer choice.

Both books open by considering the Romans’ strikingly unflattering myth of origin. The tale of Romulus and Remus is an odd one with which to celebrate the founding of a great city, involving as it does a rape, an unwanted pregnancy, a bungled attempt at infanticide and a successful fratricide. But as Holland comments, non-Romans “found it all too plausible. That Romulus had been fathered by Mars, the god of war, and suckled by a she-wolf appeared – to those brought into bruising contact with his descendants – to explain much about the Roman character.” As the Byzantine emperor Justin observed of his Roman neighbours, “It is only to be expected that they should all of them have the hearts of wolves. They are inveterately thirsty for blood, and insatiable in their greed. Their lusting after power and riches has no limits!”

Both authors then consider the early kings whose tyrannical excesses led the Romans for hundreds of years to refuse to allow supreme power to remain with any single ruler, and caused them instead to embrace a republican form of government in which supreme power long rested with Senatus PopulusQue Romanus – “the Senate and People of Rome” – the SPQR of Beard’s title.

It is only with the pivotal moment of the rise of Augustus, however, that the mists of mythology clear and both books fully come alive. It is a story so familiar from drama and fiction, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra through I, Claudius and Caligula to HBO’s Rome – indeed, even the Asterix comics – that it comes as something of a surprise to see how closely the lineaments of the tales we have followed since childhood resemble the hard reality of recorded history.

For Holland, Augustus is the small-town gangster who rises from a relatively obscure background to become Julius Caesar’s adopted son. He portrays a chillingly ruthless figure whose rise to become the first emperor of Rome involved using the murder of Caesar as his springboard into power-gathering a party around him and carefully orchestrating a series of assassinations by his illegal private army of thugs and hitmen, “a harvest of aristocratic heads” that culminated in the bloodiest civil war of antiquity. This reached its murderous climax on the fields of Philippi, where in 42BC he finally defeated Caesar’s enemies, the champions of the Republic, in a battle in which it has been estimated “that a quarter of all [Roman] citizens of military age fought on one side or the other”. Having come to power with the assistance of his partners in the Triumvirate, Marc Antony and Lepidus, he then turned on them and seized absolute power following his victory in the Battle of Actium and the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra.

Beard is more admiring of this mesmerising man who dominated the Mediterranean world for nearly half a century, and admits to remaining baffled by such a complex and contradictory figure. She quotes his 4th-century successor Julian the Apostate, who likened him to “a chameleon . . . a tricky old reptile continually changing colour . . . one minute gloomy and sombre, the next parading all the charms of the goddess of love . . . enigmatic, slippery and evasive”.

The tall and godlike figure we see in his still instantly recognisable, mass-produced statues, industriously distributed around the empire, seems to have borne only a passing resemblance to the real man, who, according to his contemporaries, was a frail hypochondriac who wore platform shoes to mask his shortness, and had unkempt hair, bad teeth, “poor spelling . . . terror of thunderstorms and [a] habit of wearing four tunics and a vest under his toga in the winter”. Among his final words to the friends who assembled at his bedside as he was dying was “a characteristically shifty” quotation from a Greek comedy: “If I have played my part well, then give me applause.”

“What kind of act had he been playing all those years?” Beard asks. “Where was the real Augustus? How Augustus managed to recast so much of the political landscape of Rome, how he managed to get his own way for more than forty years, and with what support, is still puzzling.”

Augustus, widely seen as Rome’s greatest emperor, highlights the problem we have with almost all these towering monsters: do we regard them as “great”, for the way they bestrode the world, bringing with the Pax Romana prosperity and civilisation to the entire Mediterranean region? Or do we see them as primal models of the corruption and depravity that autocracy and tyranny necessarily bring in their wake, as well as being templates for the violence and exploitation of later centuries of European imperialism? The Romans clearly believed in their own mission civilisatrice: as Pliny put it, it was Rome’s destiny “to unite previously distinct powers, to soften patterns of behaviour, to provide a common language to the numerous peoples hitherto divided by their savage tongues, to civilise mankind – in short, to unite the peoples of the world, and to serve them as their fatherland”. Yet the brutality of Roman colonialism was often extraordinary, and the casualties enormous even by modern standards. Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, for instance, have often been compared to a genocide. “A million people, so it was said, perished over their course,” Holland writes. “A million more were enslaved.”

In both books, the reader is repeatedly struck by the ease with which the very human figures of the Julio-Claudians move from being totally familiar, and motivated by thoroughly modern aspirations and desires, to moments when they suddenly become utterly alien. Beard is especially good on this. From one point of view, she writes, “. . . everything seems reassuringly familiar: there are conversations going on that we almost join, about the nature of freedom or problems of sex; there are buildings and monuments we recognise and family life lived out in ways we understand, with all their troublesome adolescents; and there are jokes that we ‘get’.” One of the great concerns of imperial Rome was immigration and the displacement by war of vast numbers of foreign refugees into its urban centres: these are issues which are still current in politics today. But, viewed through another peephole, the Roman world sometimes appears terrifyingly vicious and alien, as Beard explains:

That means not just the slavery, the filth (there was hardly any such thing as refuse collection in ancient Rome), the human slaughter in the arena and the death from illnesses whose cure we now take for granted; but also the newborn babies thrown away on rubbish heaps, the child brides and the flamboyant eunuch priests.

Holland usually stresses the parallels with the modern world in the orchestrated theatricality of the emperors’ public performances, as well as the degree of international celebrity enjoyed by the Roman royal family. “No household in history,” he writes, “had ever before been so squarely in the public eye as that of Augustus.”

The fashions and hairstyles of its most prominent members, reproduced in exquisite detail by sculptors across the Empire, set trends from Syria to Spain. Their achievements were celebrated in spectacular showy monuments, their scandals repeated with relish from seaport to seaport. Propaganda and gossip, each feeding off the other, gave to the dynasty of Augustus a celebrity that ranked, for the first time, as continent-spanning.

Even their sexual lives can appear proto-modern. Augustus’s daughter Julia is a strikingly familiar figure: after her father divorced her mother, Scribonia, she grew alienated from both her father and her stepmother, Livia, and, like some unhappy child of Hollywood, or renegade royalty, took refuge in frenzied adultery. Yet as the depravity of the Julio-Claudians grows ever more bizarre, we again find ourselves in an alien world: the elderly retired Tiberius turns the entire island of Capri into the Roman equivalent of the Playboy Mansion, where youths from leading families are made to enact scenes from the lives of the gods, “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”. Nero simulates “criminals being torn to pieces” by binding the objects of his lust to stakes, then releasing himself from a cage, “dressed in the skins of a wild animal”, and performing acts of oral sex on his victims.

If Beard is the considered Augustus of classical studies in this country and Holland the Mark Antony, with one eye firmly on the imperial bedroom, the third member of this literary triumvirate must be Peter Frankopan, whose epic study of East-West cross-fertilisation, The Silk Roads, was published in August. Frankopan, however, is no weak Lepidus: his is a book of dazzling range and ambition which, in its chapters on the Roman empire, illuminates a side of Romanitas that does not emerge in Beard’s and Holland’s more Eurocentric work: the degree to which the Roman empire was funded, softened and to some extent civilised by its eastern and Asiatic provinces. It was here, Frankopan writes, quoting the poet-historian Sallust, that “Roman soldiers came of age . . . learned how to make love, to be drunk, to enjoy statues, pictures and art”. It was, after all, Egyptian grain that fed the empire, Levantine taxes that paid for its monuments, and eastern silks that revealingly wrapped its society woman. And it was, finally, an eastern religion, Christianity, that replaced its ancient gods.

It is also Frankopan who gives us a fabulously apocalyptic vision – absent from these books by Beard and Holland – of the fall of Rome to Alaric’s Visigoths in 410AD, and an even more terrifying visitation from the “seedbed of evil”, the Huns. The picture he paints is a sort of classical version of Mad Max: Fury Road. The Huns, he shows, were creatures from a nightmare: dressed in robes made of field mice skins stitched together, they ate raw meat, “partially warmed by being placed between their thighs”. But it was not just that they were “exceedingly savage”; they looked terrifying, too. The Huns performed cranial deformation on their young, “flatten[ing] the frontal and occipal bones by applying pressure [so that] the head grew in a pointed manner”, as well as “scarring the cheeks of infant boys when they were born . . . They spent so long on horseback that their bodies were grotesquely deformed; and they looked like animals standing on their hind legs.”

These were the men who brought down Rome and ended the glory of the Caesars. At long last, the Romans had met their match – a people even more ruthless, brutal and lupine than themselves. 

SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard is published by Profile Books (£25, 606pp)

Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caeser by Tom Holland is published by Little, Brown (£25, 483pp)

William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan is published by Bloomsbury

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
Show Hide image

Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496