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This is me doing clickbait titles. And by using a slightly out of date reference that people will only just remember I’m maintaining the tradition that ancient historians are always a little behind everyone else when it comes to modern events.If David Cameron Fucked A Pig is too 2015 for you, Ted Cruz Is The Zodiac Killer fits this too. Now most people won’t read past probably this bit (so my friends who know about how people read on the internet tell me) so maybe I should answer the question that I know you’re all asking now: what does David Cameron shagging a pig have to do with writing about Romans? Or maybe I should leave it to the end, so you keep reading. I’m not sure. I don’t know about these things. I just know about Romans.
The relationship between these two things – the Prime Minister of the UK putting his dick in the mouth of a dead pig and the entire civilisation of the Roman empire – is the importance of rumour and anecdote, and how they make life both really hard and really fun for historians like me.
Here’s the thing with the David Cameron Fucked a Pig story: we all know it’s not true. I was awake and on Twitter when the story broke in the middle of the night and the hysteria flowed through and the left-leaning journos and artists I follow (all brilliant, marvellous, smart, nuanced people) all fell about joking, laughing, retweeting, spreading the story that was too funny, too perfect. It encapsulated everything that educated lefties like me hate about Cameron: it had the exclusive university dining club setting, a dining club where they had a pig’s head – like Henry the Eighth! – the image of the braying, drunk mob of red faced posh boys, the peer pressure, the notion that Cameron will do ANYTHING for power, a literal penis going into a dead pig, and the almost too perfect intertextuality of David Cameron both looking quite a lot like a ham, and that this exact thing was the basis of an episode of a TV show a few years back. David Cameron Fucking A Pig epitomised why a significant subset of people just really hate David Cameron. So we wrote about it, laughed about it, spread it. But we all know it didn’t technically happen.
People are smart, they know the story is at absolute best a wild exaggeration of a drunk boy putting a flaccid dick in a pig’s mouth. At best. Most likely it was a half truth woven by a man who we know actively hates Cameron for denying him a job and who sold the story to the highest paying, lowest common denominator tabloid to publicise the book he wrote about Cameron. We KNOW this. We don’t believe that David Cameron fucked a pig. But still, there’s a PigGate wikipedia page, it was in all the papers, it was in Time magazine, the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was forced to publicly deny that he had ever fucked a pig. It’s part of Cameron’s reputation, his legacy, even though it’s just a silly story no one believes. In 1000 years, it’s just possible that this is a thing people know about him. Brexit, phone hacking, and the pig fucking.
Which brings me to writing history, and especially history concerning the Julio-Claudian family. Because so much of what we have about Julio-Claudian emperors is stories just like this – stories about sex, about private habits, about things happening on islands that no-one ever visited, behind closed doors and even – when you’re Suetonius – inside emperor’s heads. Take this classic line about Caligula for example, probably one of the best known “facts” about poor old Gaius:
“…it is also said that he planned to make Incitatus [his horse] consul.”
This is written by Suetonius, about 80 years after Caligula dies and he’s pretty clear that the level of chat we’re talking about is the level that David Cameron Fucked A Pig fits into: a rumour, a story, something no one really believes but everyone thinks is funny because it fits what they think about Caligula: he’s a deranged, uncontrolled lunatic who likes his horse way too much and has no respect for the institution of the senate. But another 50 years after that, 130 years after Caligula had a favourite horse, we get this from Cassius Dio:
“he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.”
Certainly? Certainly would he? The rumour, the “it is said” has become fact. And by the time you get to now, it’s in Rotten Romans book with FACT! written next to it.
That’s an extreme example of course. But it’s indicative. So much of what’s known about Agrippina and her family, her world, everything that happened comes from rumour and is bracketed by “reliable sources say”, “it is said”, “historians report” or a personal favourite “the lecherous passion he felt for his mother was notorious.” But these stories are always GREAT. They’re always dramatic or sex filled or just plain WEIRD. They’re always the best ones to tell, which is how they survive. Except. Except there’s two levels of difficulty with that for a historian trying to write about these people: these are always the best, most entertaining stories, but what obligation do I have to any kind of truth?
This is a question that bothers me, and bothers lots of people. I’m a trained historian, trained not to make statements I can’t substantiate and to avoid using the past for my own ends. But is my job to peel back layers of rumour and story and lies and find out what’s underneath, only to see that there is nothing, or is it to pick through those rumours to find kernels that I can – for whatever reason of my own – decide are “The Truth”, or is it to report those rumours and leave you to make your own decisions? What criteria do I use to decide which stories are anecdotes and which stories are “true” and which are “rumour”? I mean some are seemingly obvious, like the Caligula horse one. Others are, in context, obviously bollocks too, like basically any accusation of incest because incest was a bizarrely common accusation in the 1stC and there are numerous examples of people making accusations in order to take out their enemies. So either the Romans were constantly fucking their siblings, or it’s a strange cultural quirk of the period to accuse your enemies of fucking their siblings. But others. Others are hard, and there are just so many of them. Just Suetonius’s Life of Claudius is 11,500 words of mainly weird anecdote, and Agrippina weaves through 5 emperor’s lives, always in the background, always obscured by layers of misogyny, genre tropes, narratives and different, unknown sources. Picking these layers apart, and then working out what is left, is a challenge. Because I don’t want to tell people that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer or David Cameron Fucked A Pig, I want to be able to tell you the reader these stories and what they mean.
One of my favourite books of recent years is Laurent Binet’s HHhH, a part fictional, part historical, part memoir account of the assassination of Heinrich Himmler. As much of the book is about Binet’s research, decision making, thought processes and worries when writing his novel. Several pages for example deal with the colour of Himmler’s car and its representation in a number of sources, a car that Binet has both seen and touched. HHhH is incredibly personal (and brilliant, you should read it) but the thing I like most about it is how honest Binet is with his readers about the fudges, the guesses, the assumptions that make up telling history. I’m not writing a novel, I don’t have access to the sources that Binet has (the absolute luxury modern historians have and still they complain), but I still have to make decisions about what to believe and what not to, about hows and whys and wheres. And make this entertaining and not an unbearably tedious academic book which picks apart anecdotes until they just shrivel to boring, boring dust. It’s a careful tightrope to walk, the line between credulous – or knowing – reporting of the ridiculous, and the dissection of it into something meaningless.
I guess the point of this is that all history is lies, based on lies told at the exact second events were happening. History is all interpretation and word choice, it’s the difference between “David Cameron Fucked A Pig” and “a hostile source leaked a one sentence description of teenage David Cameron putting a private part of his anatomy into a dead pig’s mouth” and“people would like to believe that David Cameron fucked a pig because it just fits.” And some are lies which tell more truth, and tell it more entertainingly that an honest truth can. And isn’t that what makes history fun.