Ancient World

When I announced my intention to write a new history of Rome, many people manifested a sense of astonishment similar to what they would have felt had I said that I meant to retire to a monastery. Was it to be believed that the hurrying modern age, which bends all its energies toward the future, would find time to look back, even for a moment, at that past so far away? That my attempt was rash was the common opinion not only of friends and critics, but also of publishers, who everywhere at first showed themselves skeptical and hesitating.

FROM CAESAR TO NERO

by Guglielmo Ferrero

In the spring of 1906, the College de France invited me to deliver, during November of that year, a course of lectures on Roman history. I accepted, giving a resume, in eight lectures, of the history of the government of Augustus from the end of the civil wars to his death; that is, a resume of the matter contained in the fourth and fifth volumes of the English edition of my work, The Greatness and Decline of Rome.

Two years ago in Paris, while giving a course of lectures on Augustus at the College de France, I happened to say to an illustrious historian, a member of the French Academy, who was complimenting me: "But I have not remade Roman history, as many admirers think. On the contrary, it might be said, in a certain sense, that I have only returned to the old way. I have retaken the point of view of Livy; like Livy, gathering the events of the story of Rome around that phenomenon which the ancients called the 'corruption' of customs - a novelty twenty centuries old!"

In the history of Rome figures of women are rare, because only men dominated there, imposing everywhere the brute force, the roughness, and the egoism that lie at the base of their nature: they honoured themater familias because she bore children and kept the slaves from stealing the flour from the bin and drinking the wine from the amphore on the sly.

In estimating distant historical events, one is often the victim of an error of perspective; that is, one is disposed to consider as the outcome of a pre-established plan of human wisdom what is the final result, quite unforeseen, of causes that acted beyond the foresight of contemporaries. At the distance of centuries, turning back to consider the past, we can easily find out that the efforts of one or two generations have produced certain effects on the actual condition of the world; and then we conclude that those generations meant to reach that result.

On the 13th of October of 54 A.D., when Emperor Claudius died, the Senate chose as his successor his adopted son, Nero, a young man of seventeen, fat and short-sighted, who had until then studied only music, singing, and drawing. This choice of a child-emperor, who lacked imperial qualities and suggested the child kings of Oriental monarchies, was a scandalous novelty in the constitutional history of Rome.

"He walked with head bent and fixed, the face stern, a taciturn man exchanging no word with those about him.... Augustus realised these severe and haughty manners, and more than once tried to excuse them in the Senate and to the people, saying that they were defects of temperament, not signs of a sinister spirit."

In history as it is generally written, there are to be seen only great personages and events, kings, emperors, generals, ministers, wars, revolutions, treaties. When one closes a huge volume of history, one knows why this state made a great war upon that; understands the political thinking, the strategic plans, the diplomatic agreements of the powerful, but would hardly be able to answer much more simple questions: how people ate and drank, how the warriors, politicians, diplomats, were clad, and in general how men lived at any particular time.

Augustus died the twenty-third of August of the year 14 A.D., saying to Livia, as she embraced him: "Adieu, Livia, remember our long life." Suetonius adds that, before dying, he had asked the friends who had come to salute him, if he seemed to them "mimum vitae commode transegisse" - to have acted well his life's comedy. In this famous phrase many historians have seen a confession, an acknowledgment of the long role of deceit that the unsurpassable actor had played to his public. What a mistake!

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