Ancient rome

Conn Iggulden: Nero

43 min listen

My guest on this week’s Book Club podcast is Conn Iggulden, probably the best selling author of historical fiction of our day. This week Conn publishes Nero, the first in a new trilogy about the notorious Roman emperor. He tells me about how he learned to write historical fiction, his years-long path to overnight success, and the advantages (and disadvantages) of having an audience comprised of men who can’t seem to stop thinking about the Roman Empire.

What would the Romans think of assisted suicide? 

What a song and dance about the end of life! Historians assure us that, among human beings, there is a long, well-established tradition of dying and if, after a life well lived, one feels enough is enough, what on earth is the problem? Seneca, the philosopher and adviser to Nero, took a duly stoical approach: birth was a death sentence. We were in fact dying every day. Since death would get us in the end – in his case, Nero ordered him to commit suicide – it was as pointless to fear death as it was useless to run from it (he suggested that would mean simply lengthening your death

Easter special: how forgiveness was forgotten

36 min listen

This week: how forgiveness was forgotten, why the secular tide might be turning, and looking for romance at the British museum.  Up first: The case of Frank Hester points to something deep going on in our culture, writes Douglas Murray in the magazine this week. ‘We have never had to deal with anything like this before. Any mistake can rear up in front of you again – whether five years later (as with Hester) or decades on.’ American lawyer and author of Cancel Culture: the latest attack on free speech, Alan Dershowitz, joins the podcast to discuss whether forgiveness has been forgotten. (02:11) Then: Will and Lara take us through some

Can Italy reverse its falling birth rate? 

Anne McElvoy is on the road again, exploring the state of modern Europe. Following her Radio 4 programme, The Reinvention of Germany in April, the Politico journalist has travelled to Padua, in northern Italy, where reactions to the rise of the right-wing populist Giorgia Meloni appear to vary. Is the 46-year-old PM a breath of fresh air – the best chance Italy has for a future – or a hypocritical dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist? The reinvention (or rather restoration) of Italy is very much Meloni’s goal. Clinging to the familiar principles of faith, flag and family, she has eschewed measures that would allow those born in Italy to define themselves as Italian,

Why some men are obsessed with the Roman Empire

Why do men think about the Roman Empire so much? That’s the subject of a new social media trend, where women ask their partners how often they think about ancient Rome.  Some men do it every day; one admitted to doing it three times a day. But why is it men who love the Empire so obsessively? ‘There’s so much to think about,’ one man said to his fiancée on TikTok. Another admitted he loved ‘their aqueducts and the fact that they had concrete that could harden’. He’s right. The Pantheon in Rome was built out of a special Roman concrete that has held up its extremely delicate dome since 126

Roman politicians were the ultimate gossips

The ancients were as fascinated by rumour as, to judge by recent events in Russia and the BBC, we are. Homer called rumour ‘the messenger of Zeus’, with a fondness for racing through crowds. Virgil described it as a winged monster, with an unsleeping eye under every feather, a mouth and tongue never silent and an ear always pricked, combining truth with lies and distortions. Ovid saw it as a sort of clearing-house ‘from which the whole world is in view’ – a structure of echoing brass, with thousands of entrances and exits, echoing back, and so increasing the volume of, the ‘murmured whisperings’ it picked up. Roman politicians were

Jeremy Clarke would have felt at home in Pompeii

Classical literature has the reputation of being pretty serious stuff, far removed from the world that Jeremy Clarke inhabited. But he would have felt perfectly at home in Pompeii. Take the conversation decorating the grave monument of the bar-owners Lucius Calidius Eroticus and Fannia Voluptas (beat that, Frankie Howerd!): ‘Innkeeper! The bill!’ ‘You’ve had a sextarius of wine, and bread: one as. Relish, two asses.’ ‘Right.’ ‘The girl, eight asses.’ ‘Right.’ ‘Hay for the mule, two asses.’ ‘That mule – it’ll be the ruin of me.’ Jeremy would also surely have admired the lifestyle and works of the scandalous author Petronius, whom the historian Tacitus described as follows: ‘He slept

Augustus and a lesson in self-publicity

The death of Her Majesty raises the question of a commemoration of her extraordinary years of service. Augustus ruled the Roman empire from 27 bc to ad 14 and was the longest serving of the roughly 70 emperors of the western empire (which ended technically in ad 476). He may have cracked a joke on his deathbed, asking those around him to applaud if he had played his part well in the comedy of life, but he was in deadly earnest about documenting in the first person a selective record of his own achievements (res gestae) for posting across the empire in both Greek and Latin. For example, he tells

The Roman roots of Tony Blair’s approach to education

Sir Tony Blair’s Tone-deaf suggestion that Stem subjects should dominate the curriculum of all schools would paradoxically take education back to the ancient world, when education was designed to benefit only the few. Take Rome. Wealth in the ancient world lay in land, which the rich exploited for all it was worth. Needing to protect their investment, Romans used their power to ensure that it was they who governed the state. The education system was designed to train them in winning arguments in the Senate and to protect themselves and their money in the courts. That left the remaining 90 per cent to fend for themselves, most trying to survive

Do we need a Roman-style Water Czar?

It is clear that the country will soon need a Water Czar. Augustus’s right-hand man Agrippa would be the one to reshape the whole system, and Frontinus to ensure it all worked. Of Rome’s aqueducts, ‘cut-and cover’ masonry channels, following the contours of the ground, made up 80 to 90 per cent of their total mileage, with tunnels and arches only as necessary. Rome’s first three aqueducts, built between 312 bc and 144 bc, were ten miles, 40 miles and 56 miles long, the last with arches along the final flat seven miles into the city. But Rome was expanding fast by now and it was clear that, if the

Which monarchs have had the longest reigns?

Long to reign over us The Queen is the world’s current longest-serving monarch, but two in history have had longer reigns. – Louis XIV of France ascended the throne aged four in 1643 and served until his death in 1715 aged 76 – 72 years, 110 days on the throne. He was succeeded by his five-year-old great-grandson. – Rama IX was king of Thailand from 9 June 1946 until his death on 13 October 2016 – a period of 70 years, 126 days. – The Queen will overtake Rama IX on 12 June this year, but will have to reign until 21 May 2024 before she eclipses Louis XIV to

Putin is repeating Emperor Vitellius’s mistakes

Given Putin’s less than triumphant operation in Chechnya, where the Russian army suffered catastrophic losses, it is hardly surprising that his control of the ‘special operation’ in Ukraine does not seem to be a howling success. His inability to deal with the situation there bears a striking resemblance to that of the short-lived Roman emperor Vitellius. After the chaos that followed Nero’s suicide in ad 68, the year 69 is known as ‘the year of the four emperors’. Vitellius was the third to try for the throne, before falling to the ultimately successful pro-Vespasian forces. The Roman historian Tacitus was scathing about his military abilities. Vitellius in fact had some

Putin’s emperor complex

Did Vladimir Putin ever use his infamous ‘historical’ account of Russia-Ukraine relations to consider how Ukrainians might react to his decision to attack them? Clearly not. The Roman historian Tacitus (d. c. ad 120) knew better what history was for. Tacitus acknowledged that Rome under the tyranny of the emperors had become corrupted. As a result, it had lost that moral compass evident in its early history. Discussing the tribes of Germany, for example, he commented on the laudable strictness of their marriage laws (one man, one wife) and a life free of vice: ‘No one thinks vice funny, no one calls corrupting or being corrupted “modern life”.’ The implied

What makes a ‘just’ war?

What is a just war? Those who, from St Augustine onwards, have debated the question usually begin with Cicero, the Roman philosopher and statesman, who first attempted a definition in 44 bc. Cicero’s general understanding of the nature of justice, which was a central duty of those in power, went as follows: ‘Justice instructs us to spare all men, to consider the interests of the whole human race, to give everyone his due, and not to touch property which belongs to others.’ The foundation of justice was good faith, i.e. ‘truth and fidelity to promises and agreements’. There should be ‘a limit to retribution and punishment for wrongdoing’: much better

Ukraine, the Roman army and why morale matters

Commentators talk much about the morale of the Ukrainian troops and the edge that this has given them over the Russians, even in a technology-dominated conflict. Ancient warfare was a matter of hand-to-hand fighting, where morale is absolutely crucial – ‘defeat in battle always starts with the eyes’, said Tacitus – and the imperial Roman army offers a masterclass in how to generate it. That army was, uniquely, professional. The soldiers’ physical fitness, kit, mastery of weapons and technical training in battle tactics were second to none. Their loyalty to the group was reinforced by the closely knit units of eight in which they lived, ate and slept, training and

The rise and fall of the Tsarist legal system

St. Petersburg University in Russia is (desperately?) inviting scholars worldwide to a conference in September celebrating Mikhail Speransky. It was he who, on the orders of the Russian emperor Nicholas I, published in 1830 a 45-volume compilation of all the laws of the Russian Empire, which he reduced to a 15-volume digest by 1839. It was to form the basis of the Tsarist legal system. The precedent for this was, of course, the legal Digest of Rome’s eastern emperor Justinian (AD 533). This was a compendium of 2,000 volumes of Roman law published between the 1st and 3rd centuries ad. Its purpose was to produce a contemporary, definitive account of

The Russians aren’t the first to rewrite history

Historians in Russia have a long and craven record, now going back centuries, of being economical with the truth about their current regime. The Roman historian Tacitus had a fascinating explanation for why such economy was also the case under the early Roman emperors. First, some background. Livy’s 142-book moral and romantic history of Rome stretched from earliest times to 9 bc, including the end of the republic in 27 bc when Augustus became emperor. Livy saw libertas as a key component of Roman success, and put it down to the way in which, after the expulsion of the kings of Rome (508 bc), a republican system developed in which

Patriarch Kirill, Archbishop Ambrose and a lesson for Putin

Patriarch Kirill is Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church; and one of his flock is that committed Orthodox Christian Vladimir Putin. Kirill applauds Putin’s genocidal assault on Ukraine. Has he never heard of Archbishop Ambrose of Milan and his dealings with the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius? It all began in ad 390, in the important Greek city of Thessalonica, when Butheric, the commanding general of the Roman field army and a friend of Theodosius, imprisoned a popular chariot-racer. The mob, determined to see him racing at the next games, demanded his release. Butheric refused. A major riot ensued, and since much of the

What Tacitus knew about tyrants

Last week Aristotle offered a lesson in tyrant theory. This week Tacitus (ad 56-c.120) offers one in tyrant practice. Tacitus was a Roman historian who enjoyed a successful political career, rising to consul and provincial governor. He admitted that he laid its foundations under the tyrannical emperor Domitian (d. ad 96) – he memorably contrasted Domitian’s red face with the pallor his gaze induced in his victims – and thought his duty as a historian was to ensure that those responsible for murderous deeds or heroic actions should never be forgotten. His judgment of Domitian’s reign was worthy of Orwell: ‘Rome of old [i.e. the republic, 508-27 bc] explored the

How the ancients approached the three Rs

German archaeologists have found ancient Egyptian tablets covered in repetitive writing exercises and ask — were they pupil punishments? But if classical examples are anything to go by, they sound more like normal education. For elite Roman boys, education began with elementary reading, writing and numbers. From about the age of nine, they developed these skills further, especially in the study of poetry, and began Greek; and at 15, they were taught the arts of political and legal argument, drawing widely on mythical, historical and philosophical precedents, to prepare them for life at the top of Roman society. Rote learning, memorisation, repetition (and the whip) were the means of ‘driving