Joan Acocella, The New Yorker:
Pliny’s eyewitness account of the 79 A.D. Vesuvius eruption tells us what happened, but the archeological remains conjure with agonizing intimacy the lives of those who perished.
[Pliny the Younger] wrote long letters to Trajan, asking whether he should do this or that. The letters took two months to arrive in Rome, and the answers took two months to get back. Reading them, you sense that Trajan often wished Pliny would just go ahead and make whatever decision seemed reasonable.
We do hear about some celebrated crimes: Agrippina, the Emperor Claudius’ wife, poisoning him in order to secure the succession for her son, Nero; Nero then killing Agrippina and also kicking his pregnant wife, Poppaea, to death. (That’s after he arranged for the poisoning of his stepbrother, Brittanicus.) Then, there’s Domitian, going off with, they say, whatever implement he had at hand, to terminate his niece Julia’s pregnancy, engendered by him. This, Dunn writes, inspired a locally popular ditty: “Julia freed her fertile uterus by many / an abortion and shed clots which resembled their uncle.” (Julia died from the procedure.) Next to such reports, the regular rubouts, as in the notorious Year of the Four Emperors, in 69 A.D.—Nero, to avoid execution, stabbed himself in the throat and was replaced by Galba, who was assassinated after seven months by the Praetorian Guard and succeeded by Otho, who ruled for three months before, faced with a rebellion, he committed suicide, yielding his place to Vitellius (soon murdered by the soldiers of Vespasian, but let’s stop there)—look like business as usual. Or they would seem so if they didn’t involve those little Cosa Nostra touches, such as a victim’s being found with his penis cut off and stuffed in his mouth.
(click here to continue reading The Terror and the Fascination of Pompeii | The New Yorker.)
I think I was 17 when I first read some Roman history, in a freshman level survey class at UT. I was amazed at how gossipy Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars was. Such a contrast with the neutral tones of typical history textbooks, especially the ones that I had read in high school. Still fascinating…