Sunday 19 May 2019

Roman Recommendations by L.J. Trafford

I thought for this month’s post I might do something a bit different. Rather than write a piece on some part of Roman history I thought I would recommend some Roman related things that I have enjoyed and that you might too.


When I became Roman obsessed in the early 90s there really wasn’t much in the way of ancient Rome set fiction. What there was were weighty, long and frankly, dull books in the vein of Ben Hur and Quo Vadis. Which ,yes I did read but by Jupiter’s fiery thunderbolt they were a struggle.
But then I stumbled across a few books that gripped me in their story and not once did I have to skip chapters of long philosophical meanderings to get to the ruddy plot.

I, Claudius – Robert Graves 

The classic book that has forever, probably unfairly, set our views on the Emperor Claudius. Here he is the underdog in the nest of vipers that is the Julian Claudian clan. He’s clever and able but he can’t show it if he wants to survive. But survive he does through the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. Which is no mean feat given the family members who are popping off left, right and centre of him.

This is also notably the book that casts Livia as a mass murderer intent on getting her son, Tiberius to be emperor. You do have to wonder when she found the time for all that murder let alone why she bothered when the Tiberius portrayed here is such a freaky pervert. Really she should have bumped off everyone much sooner. I mean at one point there is only Agrippa and Augustus standing between Tiberius and emperor-hood. Surely that was the time to strike? Why wait until Agripppa has children who clutter up the system? It makes no sense.

Elsewhere Graves tries to make more sense by straightening out that Julio Claudian habit of giving everybody the same name, e.g. Agrippina becomes Pina, Drusus Castor. Which takes all the fun out of trying to work out which generation of Julia is bonking about the place.

It’s a work of classical fiction. But with sex a plenty, skulduggery a muchly and all the best bits of Suetonius wrapped up as literature.

The Falco Series – Lindsey Davis

Whereas I, Claudius concentrates on life in the palace and the fierce battling to be emperor, the Falco books examine life for the ordinary Roman making do. Yes, Imperial types such as Vespasian and Titus do feature and act as sometime employer of Falco but the emphasis is very much on Rome’s ‘others’.

Falco himself is from the rough Aventine district where he works as a detective for hire. Falco’s job gives Davis scope to explore wide ranging aspects of ancient Rome, such as criminal gangs, religion, law, gladiatorial shows and slavery. She also takes Falco out of Rome into the provinces like Britannia and Germania.

They are written as a 40s crime noir but with the twist that although Falco is your typical cynical, hard edged tec he is burdened with a large interfering family. Philip Marlow never had to counter with a Ma like Falco’s!

In fact it is Falco’s extended family, friends and enemies that make the series so enjoyable. Not least his arch nemesis, palace spy Anacrites. Now I know my fellow writer and ex History Girl, Alison Morton will disagree with me most passionately on this, but Anacrites is by far the best character. Possibly because Davis maintains him as a man of mystery, the genuine noir loner, for nearly the entire series.
Falco says of Anacrites that ‘he could be pleasant and was tolerable to look at’. By which I think we can deduce he is well sexy and charming. For which I will forgive his occasional attempts to murder Falco.

Augustus - Allan Massie

This was the book that cemented my passion for ancient Rome. It is a simply brilliant telling of the rise of Augustus from the man himself. Massie gets Rome's first emperor dead on; his sentimentality but ruthless ambition, his never ending drive and controlling nature. If you ever wanted to understand how devious Octavius become benevolent first citizen Augustus, this is the book to read.
Massie followed this up with Tiberius. Another absolute cracker of a read, Massie reject those Capri stories about Tiberius and instead paints a credible picture of a humiliated but proud man. It has never been bettered as a portrait of Tiberius, nobody has come even close. Highly, highly recommended.

Other books worth reading:
Steven Saylor’s hero Gordianus the Finder flexes his detecting muscles in Late Republican Rome. It would be difficult to write a dull book about the late republic, it is positively bursting with characters and incidents. Both of which Saylor uses magnificently.
His portrayal of Marcus Caelius Rufus is stuck in my head as definitive and nothing but nothing can shift it.

Also see Ruth Downie's Medicus series for another Roman detective, this time based in the wilds of Roman occupied Britain.

Podcasts! They’re like radio shows that you can listen to anytime you like! And seemingly the technology is there for any bod with a bedroom and a microphone to inform the nation about their particular passion. Which has done wonders for history broadcasting.

Totalus Rankium

As the introduction informs, this podcast “ranks all the emperors from Augustus to Augustulus” not unlike a game of Top Trumps.
Our presenters Jamie and Robb review the record of each Roman Emperor giving them a rating for
  • Fightius Maximus – Were they an all conquering Caesar? Or a hide in a march until the battle is all done with type of emperor?
  • Opprobrium Crazium – Meglomania alone won’t get you a high ranking, best to juice it up with dollops of scandal, a dash of sadism and a strong belief that your horse would make a decent politician.
  • Sucessus Ultimus – With all the power in the world, how well did they wield it?
  • Imigo Facius – With extra points for sexiness, a commanding chin and a truly great beard.
  • Tempo Completo – How long did they reign for?

And then finally deciding whether they possess a certain Je Na Caesar

As you can probably guess from the above, this is no serious history programme. It is a very funny, sometimes nonsensical, sometimes idiotic and always hilarious podcast.
Where else can you hear about the Flavian conquest of the east on two Vespa mopeds?
Or the students that plagued Antoninus Pius’ life with pranks?
Not to mention Elagbalus and his unique way of hiring staff based on their erm advantage.

Highly recommended. Though a word from the wise, probably best not to listen to at work. Unless you want to spit tea all over your desk from laughing, as I once did.
Series One took us up to the fall of the Western Empire. They are now covering the Byzantines who are properly extreme in a cut off your nose, eunuch-tastic way.

Roman Things to See (if you’re not in Rome)

British Museum
Upstairs in the Roman Gallery you have the treat of hanging out with scary Augustus head. Be sure not to look in his eyes.

Look out for the clever positioning of the bust of Tiberius, a clear three paces behind that of his mother Livia. Ha! Also Hadrian and his lover Antoninus directly facing a bust of Hadrian’s wife Sabrina. Ouch!

Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge
Having lived near Cambridge the vast majority of my life I had somehow, shamefully, never quite managed to visit the Museum of Classical Archaeology.

I put this right a few months ago. Situated in the grounds of one of the colleges this Museum is a joyful collection of plaster casts of famous Greek and Roman statues.
Augustus kindly points the way to the toilets. Gent

L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors Series of books.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Can we have a link to that podcast? It sounds great fun!

I’ve read I, Claudius and the Falco series and some of the Saylor novels, though Gordianus is grimmer than Falco and I stopped when they got too depressing. And also Suetonius, that gossip columnist of Ancient Rome, who gave Robert Graves the idea for his two novels. I found him a lot of fun, and every now and then, when he would say, “My father was with Emperor Otho, and he said...” or “When I was a child(in the time of Domitian)I saw..” I’d say, “Oh, wow!” and feel as if I was there.

Did you enjoy the Derek Jacobi series of I, Claudius? I remember when it was on, the Game Of Thrones of its time, and I said to friends, “Guess what? Germanicus is dead and Livia didn’t do it” and they shrieked, “What? Livia didn’t do it!”

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, sorry, there IS a link!

LJ Trafford said...

I absolutely loved the TV series of I, Claudius
Particularly John Hurt as Caligula

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, yes! A truly nasty Caligula. He went on to a wonderful career - well, it was the first time I’d seen him, anyway.