The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Author L.J. Trafford
Is there a source from the ancient world (a text, an inscription, an object…) that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I’d like to say it was a work that celebrated the human spirit against adversity. Or opened a philosophical window into the very nature of man. A work of deep inspirational and intellectual value that has echoed through the centuries and brings insight and knowledge to the darkest of times.
I’d like to say that but I can’t because my chosen text is Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars.
Which is the most fabulously gossipy work ever created.
When did you first come across this text?
I first became interested in Roman history as an A Level English Lit student. We were studying Antony & Cleopatra. Being somewhat of a swat I read around the subject and was flabbergasted to discover that the villain of that play, Octavius Caesar, transformed into the good emperor Augustus!!! This was a mystery that needed unpacking. I began with historical fiction, working my way through the likes of Allan Massie and Robert Graves. Once I’d exhausted fiction I strayed onto Tacitus and Cassius Dio. Then one day I stumbled across a copy of The Twelve Caesars in the Cambridge branch of WH Smith’s.
It was quite an eye-opener for an innocent 17-year-old from East Anglia. I hold Suetonius wholly responsible for having written 4 books with the taglines:
Depravity. Debauchery. Decadence.
Sex. Skulduggery. Slaughter
Duplicity. Degeneracy. Destruction
Hedonism. Heroism. Horror
I still have that copy of Suetonius; it’s looking pretty battered now. It travelled with me to university after I talked my way onto an Ancient History degree by fan-girling over Augustus in my supporting statement. It accompanied me on my first trip to Rome where I determined I was going to read the chapter on Augustus outside the great man’s mausoleum on his birthday, which I did surrounded by drunks and hypodermic needles (it wasn’t a terribly nice neighbourhood in the late 90s).
I still flick through my copy regularly and it has been used as a source for my four fiction and two non-fiction books. As well as this History Girls article: The Sauce Factor!
Can you tell me a bit about The Twelve Caesars and its context?
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a 2nd century biographer. We know very little about the man. He was a friend of Pliny the Younger’s, but then so apparently was every man in Rome at the time. He worked as a secretary for Emperor Hadrian but was dismissed for ‘impolite’ behaviour towards the Empress Sabina. He wrote a book called Greek Terms of Abuse, whose loss I mourn since it sounds like it could have had a useful practical application. And also Lives of Famous Whores which I like to pretend included the Empress Sabina as some sort of revenge.
His surviving work The Twelve Caesars is a collection of biographies of Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian. It is undeniably stupendous.
What is it about this work that appeals to you most?
Its very accessibility. Classics has a somewhat unfair reputation as being a closed subject, something that the elite study so they can make witty jokes in Latin at dinner parties that only they understand. Suetonius demolishes that. It is simply a tour de force of scurrilous rumour served up on a plate to gleeful undergraduates worn down by the Aeneid and those books that Livy wrote.
It is an unparalleled joy from start to finish. Yes, Tacitus is so very quotable and he has that whole “they create a desert and call it peace” bit which is great but Suetonius has:
“So much for the man, now for the monster”.
This classic: “Valerian Catullus revealed publicly he had buggered the emperor, and quite worn himself out in the process.”
And my all-time favourite on Tiberius: “Some aspects of his gross depravities are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe”
Which Suetonius then helpfully lists so we may judge for ourselves their vile believability.
Suetonius tells us much about those twelve Caesars that you simply won’t find anywhere else, like Domitian’s bandy legs and Augustus’ woollen underpants. Not to mention the time a whole field of horses started crying because they knew Julius Caesar would be assassinated, if only horses could talk….
In times of stress I find Suetonius comforting, partly because it is very funny but also because it is littered with examples of people having a far worse day than you are; the ‘inoffensive’ senators accidentally mown down during Caligula’s assassination, the unfortunate dinner party guests invited to Domitian’s black banquet, the hundreds of people forced to endure Nero’s poetry recitals.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
There is nothing better than being the first up, sitting in my chair with a nice cup of tea watching my fish tanks in quite contemplation.
Failing that a G&T hits the spot.
L.J. Trafford studied Ancient History at the University of Reading after which she took a job as a Tour Guide in the Lake District.
Moving to London in 2000 she began writing ‘The Four Emperors’ series. The series comprises four books – Palatine, Galba’s Men, Otho’s Regret and Vitellius’ Feast – which cover the dramatic fall of Nero and the chaotic year of the four emperors that followed.
Her new book How to Survive in Ancient Rome will be published in October 2020.
She is currently working on a book on sex and sexuality in ancient Rome.
A regular contributor to The History Girls site, her proudest moment remains creating #phallusthursday a popular Twitter hashtag dedicated to depictions of penises in antiquity.
Follow her on Twitter at @traffordlj