ADVISORY: This essay contains violent and sexual content that some readers may find offensive.
Dirt for days. Around-the-clock degradation. Scandal too good to be true. Is this the latest from a publishing porn princess or prince? No: this lip-smacking low behavior is from Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars.
If someone sees me reading Suetonius, they give me credit for reading Latin, which I did in college. As a Classics minor at New York University, Washington Square College, and all of 20 years old, I longed to get credit for a Latin author whose style was not so torturous as the historian Tacitus'. Tacitus made me sweat. My boyfriend, down at University of North Carolina, was a chemistry Ph.D candidate and fluent in Latin. He suggested Suetonius.
Soon I was sweating for different reasons.
Suetonius Tranquillus, private secretary to Emperor Hadrian around 119-121 A.D., wrote down goings-on that make us look like pikers. Don't take my word for it; here's some material from Book V and Book VI.
Book V concerns the Emperor Claudius, Roman ruler from 41-54 A.D. Suetonius starts by accusing Claudius' father, Drusus, of being the product of adulterous intercourse. The author can't wait to let you know that Claudius' own mother thought him dull and his grandmother treated him with contempt. He lays it on even thicker by telling us that Claudius' sister prayed that the Roman people would be spared the misfortune of her brother as emperor.
Our author is just warming up. He accuses Claudius of drunkenness, gambling, laziness, silliness and hanging out with a low-rent crowd.
Once Claudius becomes emperor, his bad traits could flower. Then, as now, sex sells, and the reader can wallow in it. Suetonius was surprised that Claudius evidenced a wild passion for women but not a jot for men. Back then, there was no concept of heterosexual or homosexual. Sex was sex: Have at it. But Claudius denied himself the pleasure of half the human race. Well, there's no accounting for taste.
As you might suspect, Claudius was safely dead before Suetonius decided to tell all. But before he died, Claudius did his future biographer a great favor: he adopted Nero as his successor.
Now our author is truly in his element. He tells us, practically sotto voce — you can hear him whispering in your ear — that Nero was always cruel. He killed one of his freedman for not drinking as much as the poor sot was ordered. He ran over a boy, killing him, for the pleasure of it. He gouged out a knight's eye. He cheated bankers — as opposed to the now-common reverse. He even cheated the winners of the chariot races he sponsored.
That's just for starters. Nero was charged with incest with his mother and his sister. Nero wanted to be loved as an entertainer, and our author is horrified at such a common ambition. Nero even entered chariot races and won — despite falling out of the chariot.
Now come the exciting vices. Nero, who became emperor at age 17, gave banquets where harlots waited upon the guests and himself hand and foot — as well as elsewhere. He seduced freeborn boys, married women and even a Vestal Virgin, Rubria. His roving eye landed on the priestess, and his body with it.
One of his more imaginative escapades involved castrating a beautiful young man, Sporus, whom he then took to wife. Kissing his wife in public was the least of it.
Suetonius reports, without a shred of disbelief, that Nero would be released from a cage. Wearing a wild animal skin, he would savage men and women tied to posts. Doryphorus, his freedman, accompanied him on his feigned bestiality. Nero married Doryphorus, too, but this time, the Emperor wanted to be the wife. He made people listen to him being "deflowered" on his wedding night. No mention of what Sporus thought.
From distinctive sex acts, Suetonius switches to murders, political intrigue, botched matricide and then a success at wiping out the maternal unit. She was so violent herself that Suetonius doesn't pretend to be horrified.
Oh, Nero also lost Syria. Perhaps nothing is new under the sun.
Non-stop rapes, murders, castrations and sex with multitudes fill the pages. As for Nero's death, best you read that extraordinary episode yourself: I'll just note that Sporus was with him at the end.
Suetonius' underlying theme — left unstated, out of credit for his readers' intelligence — is the devastating erosion of total power to the human psyche. Few rulers have overcome the washing away of reality, and in his work Suetonius makes this hideously clear. Without restraint, honest debate and consideration for human life and economy, not only will the person in power be destroyed — finally so will the state, the civilization.
Any government, any individual, any people can forget this central lesson at any time. Chances are they will lack the imagination of the Caesars in their demise, but you can't have everything. If you're going down, at least it should be a vivid spectacle.
And what a spectacle Suetonius gives us! How delicious to wallow in constant erections — really, it does make a girl wonder. The aging Caesars accomplished all this without Viagra: we do have a lot to learn. A guilty-pleasure read from the second century? Oh, yes. We can thank Suetonius for disguising the most salacious gossip as history — still a good formula for a bestseller.
Rita Mae Brown's latest novel is The Litter of the Law.