Roman Books That I Wish Still Existed

The number one game among Roman Historians, that’s not shag, marry, kill using ancient figures and members of your research area, is the “what books do you wish we could find in the Herculaneum library?” game. (1) Everyone has their favourites that have gone missing into the ether of time.  Some of them are poetry, many many are histories and chronicles and some are much stranger works. Each of them would give us as historians a new insight into Roman life, and would be invaluable and wonderful to read. Only some of them however, would I personally be happy to stamp on a puppy to get my hands on. Sure I wouldn’t *complain* if we got some more Cicero or Ovid, but I’m never get to get enthused about such a thing. We know more than enough about the Late Republic anyway.  No. I want the fun stuff. I want the weird stuff.  So here’s my answer to that question.(2)

5. Tacitus – Caligula

Caligula is – as everyone knows – my absolute all time favourite person in history ever. And yet the one bit of Tacitus that I would actually enjoy reading, the bit about Caligula, is missing. Gone. Mysteriously lost. Way to break my heart Tacitus. Dick. Actually it’s not Tacitus’s fault. The Annals survive in just two fragmented medieval manuscripts, neither of which overlap in terms of surviving content. But if this accident of survival had gone a different way, and Caligula’s books had survived, the amount of things we would know about him would be increased exponentially, especially because Tacitus focused so heavily on the psychology of his subjects and on detailed recreations of dramatic scenes which would be so much fun for the claims about imperial brothels and incest. Just imagine how wonderful it would be to have Tacitus’s analysis of Drusilla and Caesonia! If I ever meet a genie in a bottle, the return of this book will be my third wish (3).

4. Claudius – The Reign of Augustus

In contrast to my burning love for Caligula and Agrippina, I have a powerful animosity towards their uncle Claudius. In part this is Robert Graves’s fault. Grave’s Claudius is so saintly and perfect that I immediately and irrationally loathe him. That I believe he was intimately involved in his nephew’s assassination doesn’t help. Having his analysis of the divine Augustus’s reign then would answer a lot of questions: How did Claudius feel about Augustus’s bloody rise to power? How boring a writer was Claudius? Did his books get lost because they were too boring to be copied out? Or were they unexpectedly filthy? I hope they were unexpectedly filthy. He did marry Messalina.(4) I bet his analysis of Augustus and Livia’s meeting and marriage would have been quite something.

3. Domitian – Care of the Hair

We mentioned this the other day, and I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to read the wildly moralising, always insecure Domitian’s poetic writings about male grooming. The emperor – the actual emperor of the Roman empire – write a book about male hair care, with reference to Homer. This is BRILLIANT. Imagine if the pope wrote a book about trainers and coats with Shakespeare quotes in it. Who WOULDN’T buy that? Not only would it give us an insight into the mind of Domitian, a man who was accused of fly murder, and into a reigning emperor, it would also allow us to see how Roman aristocratic men expected themselves to look. That’s powerful social and cultural information about men and masculinity and luxury and dress. But even more importantly, it’s a book about HAIR by the EMPEROR. DUDE.

2. Suetonius – Lives of Famous Whores

Suetonius comes up constantly when we talk about the Roman world because of his biographies of emperors, but that was far from his only book. Suetonius was a prolific man, with varied interests. Interests which ranged all the way from emperors to prostitutes. I cannot even begin to image what Lives of Famous Whores must have looked like, who its target audience could have been or why anyone would write it. And that is exactly why I wish it still existed, because obviously Suetonius could. And apparently there were enough famous prostitutes in Roman history about to fill a whole book. Isn’t that just wonderful! That is a whole new perspective on Roman prostitution and sex and relationships that we don’t have access to right now. In an ideal world, I’d also like his Physical Defects of Mankind, Terms of Greek Abuse, Roman Manners and Customs and Critical Signs Used in Books. Just for my own personal use.

1. Agrippina the Younger – Memoirs

I have talked about my great and powerful love for Agrippina Minor before. As the adopted granddaughter of Tiberius, daughter of sister of Caligula, wife (and niece) of Claudius and mother of Nero she was intimately involved in the entirety of Roman imperial politics for much longer than most, and in a way that no other man or woman was. And much of her involvement was through her own design. Because she was amazing. And she wrote an autobiography, in which – according to Tacitus – she chronicled the misfortunes that her family had endured. The misfortune of being one of the most powerful families in human history presumably. If we had this we would not only have a first person account of Rome from Tiberius onward, we would have a first person FEMALE account of Rome. Something we are currently sorely lacking. I would happily burn at least three other boring Roman books to get this one. Hell, I’d burn a Roman to find this one.

(1) Herculaneum is a small town outside Pompeii which was also preserved by Vesuvius, but is much less well known or well excavated. One of the buildings that was partially excavated was the Villa of the Papyri, otherwise known as the library and about 1700 charred scrolls were saved. Currently however, these scrolls are unreadable though efforts are always underway to scan them. Thus, there is a real possibility that one day we might find we have otherwise lost works if we can find the technology to extract the writing.

(2) You’ll have to ask me in person for my answers to the shag, marry kill questions.

(3) Wish 1: Andrew Garfield to be my devoted husband. Wish 2: the first thing on this list.

(4) messalina inspired one of my all time favourite bits of Roman writing, from Juvenal – that old misogynist:

“Are you worried by Eppia’s tricks, of a non-Imperial kind?

Take a look at the rivals of the gods; hear how Claudius

Suffered. When his wife, Messalina, knew he was asleep,

She would go about with no more than a maid for escort.

The Empress dared, at night, to wear the hood of a whore,

And she preferred a mat to her bed in the Palatine Palace.

Dressed in that way, with a blonde wig hiding her natural

Hair, she’d enter a brothel that stank of old soiled sheets,

And make an empty cubicle, her own; then sell herself,

Her nipples gilded, naked, taking She-Wolf for a name,

Displaying the belly you came from, noble Britannicus,

She’d flatter her clients on entry, and take their money.

Then lie there obligingly, delighting in every stroke.

Later on, when the pimp dismissed his girls, she’d leave

Reluctantly, waiting to quit her cubicle there, till the last

Possible time, her taut sex still burning, inflamed with lust,

Then she’d leave, exhausted by man, but not yet sated,

A disgusting creature with filthy face, soiled by the lamp’s

Black, taking her brothel-stench back to the Emperor’s bed.”

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