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  • Burning Libraries: A Saucy Roman History Book July 8, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback


    This blogger remembers some sweaty hours reading Robert Graves’ translation of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, Roman history reduced to salacious tabloid gossip. The sex, the violence, the sex, the poison, the magic, the sex and, of course, that swimming pool… But once Suetonius stops writing Roman history lovers have almost nothing until Ammianus Marcelinus’ surviving books illuminate the historical savannah in the mid fourth century: the insanely misleading Historia Augusta is to be discarded. With what reason then we must mourn the passing of Marius Maximus, perhaps the most important of the lost Roman historians.

    Maximus was a Roman senator who survived into the mid third century: he was, as many senators, an imperial administrator, but he was also a writer. In fact, he wrote, in imitation of Suetonius a work of twelve emperors from Nerva to Elagabalus and one chance reference from Ammanius Marcelinus, the greatest of the late Roman historians, leaves us in no doubt that he was just as gossip-oriented as his hero. Indeed, Ammianus compares Maximus with the Roman poet Juvenal, parts of whose works would be too dirty to appear in a Playboy.

    We might not have got Maximus’ work – the last copy presumably was burnt in barbarian siege or lost in a damp monastic library two or three hundred years afterwards – but we know enough about the emperors he covered to imagine what fun he would have had. Yes, Nerva and Trajan (optimus princeps) and Antonius and the tiresome Marcus Aurelius were staid and steady in the saddle: they killed Christians and balanced budgets. One can imagine Maximus struggling to make their lives interesting: the equivalent, today, of writing the sex lives of the nineteenth-century popes.

    But their heirs made up for these goody-two shoes. We have Commodus killing animals (classical serial killer behaviour), and then getting himself strangled by a wrestler in a bath. We have Caracalla who allegedly enjoyed incest with his mother and certainly had his brother killed at a meeting arranged by this quondam lover: worst of all he wore a hood and a blonde wig and he gave Maximus several jobs. Macrinus got Caracalla’s mother to starve herself to death and then got himself killed in a temple. Then, best of all, what fun Suetonius would have had, there was Elagabalus (pictured above), more Eurovision performer than Roman emperor. He divorced five women in his short life, married two men, worshipped a meteorite and used to hold competitions to see who could pimp themselves for the most money in the Imperial palace. He naturally took part.

    We are never going to find the Twelve Caesars mark two, but we can dream. Other lost books and burning libraries: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    24 July 2014 Chris S sends this brilliant Neil Gaiman cartoon in. Thanks Chris!