Pass Us Another Pike Liver ; 69AD: The Year of Four Emperors OXFORD Pounds 17.99 Pounds 16.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897 HISTORY
Morgan, Gwyn, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
For 99 years, from the Battle of Act-ium in 31BC to the year AD68, the Julio-Claudian dynasty ruled the Roman Empire. And then in June 68, Nero put himself to death by stabbing himself in the throat, with the immortally luwie words, "Qualis artifexpereol" (What an artist I die!). And for the next tumultuous 18 months, the Roman world was plunged into unprecedented uncertainty, chaos, revolt and civil war, as no fewer than three emperors came and went with bewildering swiftness, before a fourth appeared on the scene: a jovial, bluff, no-nonsense soldier-emperor called Vespasian. It was quite a year.
All of which makes it more regrettable that Gwyn Morgan, Professor of Classics and History at the University of Texas, renders the year so dismally dull. As dry as the Numidian desert, as heavy-going as Hannibal's crossing of the Alps. He mistrusts Suetonius for being far too entertaining and gossipy, for his "delight in the rumours", but equally he cannot allude to the more sober Tacitus without interminable digressions on the historian's rhetorical devices or unreliable exaggerations. Plutarch, too, makes "wild claims", while previous modern histories of the period have been too "overtly popular". Professor Morgan himself need have no worries on that score. His kind of historical writing, as drained of life as if it has just spent the night with Dracula, will never be overtly popular.
We can't be sure of the truth of some of the more outrageous gossip. We can't be sure that, as Suetonius tells us, the moment Galba heard about Nero's death from Icelus, "one of his old time bed- fellows... Galba openly showered him with kisses and begged him to get ready and have intercourse without delay". Professor Morgan, however, denies us this colourful titbit, although he can have no more idea than you or I whether this really happened. You'll have to go back to Suetonius himself for such entertainment.
Galba, ageing, parsimonious and conservative, marched on Rome from Spain at once, and a precedent was set. Military muscle, not ancestry, would henceforth tend to decide Imperial succession. One could argue that military might had decided political power ever since Caesar crossed the Rubicon, but nevertheless, this moment of Galba's march on Rome sent shockwaves through the Empire. Galba was no more attractive in character than many subsequent Emperors, and he was certainly tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. He once sentenced a dishonest money-changer to have both his hands cut off and nailed to the counter, and when he ordered another man to be crucified and the felon objected that he was a Roman citizen - citizens could not be crucified - he mirthfully gave orders for his cross to be whitewashed first.
Galba was killed by the henchmen of the next Emperor-in-waiting, Otho. …