Augustus, Ovid and the Ara Pacis—consecrated 30 January 9 BC

The Ara Pacis Augustae is an altar dedicated to the goddess Peace located in Rome. The role of Augustus in initiating a period of peace and prosperity was a key component of Augustan ideology. The altar was consecrated on 30 January 9 BC. The Roman Senate had commissioned the monument on 4 July 13 BC to honor the return of Augustus to Rome after he had spent three years in Hispania and Gaul.

Here is what Augustus says about the Ara Pacis in the “Res Gestae,” an account of his career that was inscribed on bronze tablets placed outside of his mausoleum, which will be open to visitors again this April.

On my return from Spain and Gaul, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quintilius, after successfully arranging affairs in those provinces, the senate resolved that an altar of the Augustan Peace should be consecrated in the Campus Martius in honor of my return, and ordered that the magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins should perform an annual sacrifice there.

Cum ex Hispania Galliaque rebus in iis provincis prospere gestis, Roman redi, Ti. Nerone P. Quintilio consulibus aram Pacis Augustae senatus pro reditu meo consacrandam censuit ad campus Martium in qua magistratus et sacerdotes virginesque Vestales anniversarium sacrificium facere iussit.

Originally the Ara Pacis stood in the Campus Martius along the urban segment of the Via Flaminia (the modern Corso), though outside of the pomerium, the sacred boundary of Rome.

Lanciani FuR plate 8 showing the site of the Ara Pacis and the mausoleum of Augustus

The Campus Martius was a flood plain. Over time silt deposits from flooding covered the monument. Fragments of the monument were uncovered over time, and a dedicated effort of recovery was performed during the Fascist regime.

Mjussolini and Hitler examining part of the Ara Pacis

The museum that housed the Ara Pacis was inaugurated in 1938. Like other artifacts from Roman antiquity, the Ara Pacis was employed as an adornment of Fascist ideology.

Fascists officials at the inauguration of the original museum that housed the Ara Pacis

The Fascist-era building was replaced by one designed the Richard Meir in 2006. Like the building it replaced, this museum is located adjacent to the mausoleum of Augustus, between the tomb and the Tiber.

Res Gestae inscribed on the exterior wall of the current Ara Pacis museum

The Fasti of Ovid, a group of poems that describe the religious festivals of the Roman year, is the only extant literary reference to the Ara Pacis.

In 8 AD, Augustus sent Ovid to exile due to “a poem and a mistake,” according to another of the poet’s works in exile, Ex Ponto. The Fasti were composed as part of his petition for permission to return to Rome. The quality of his writing remained high, but no poem or friend could bring him home; he died in Black Sea relegatio in 18 AD after ten years away from Rome.

My song has led to the altar of Peace itself.
This day is the second from the month’s end.
Come, Peace, your graceful tresses wreathed
With laurel of Actium: stay gently in this world.
While we lack enemies, or cause for triumphs:
You’ll be a greater glory to our leaders than war.
May the soldier be armed to defend against arms,
And the trumpet blare only for processions.
May the world far and near fear the sons of Aeneas,
And let any land that feared Rome too little, love her.
Priests, add incense to the peaceful flames,
Let a shining sacrifice fall, brow wet with wine,
And ask the gods who favor pious prayer
That the house that brings peace, may so endure.
Now the first part of my labor is complete,
And as its month ends, so does this book.

Ipsum nos carmen deduxit Pacis ad aram:
haec erit a mensis fine secunda dies.
frondibus Actiacis comptos redimita capillos,
Pax, ades et toto mitis in orbe mane.
dum desint hostes, desit quoque causa triumphi:
tu ducibus bello gloria maior eris.
sola gerat miles, quibus arma coerceat, arma,
canteturque fera nil nisi pompa tuba.
horreat Aeneadas et primus et ultimus orbis:
siqua parum Romam terra timebat, amet.
tura, sacerdotes, Pacalibus addite flammis,
albaque perfusa victima fronte cadat;
utque domus, quae praestat eam, cum pace perennet
ad pia propensos vota rogate deos.
Sed iam prima mei pars est exacta laboris,
cumque suo finem mense libellus habet.

Caligula—Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus— gets stabbed in the obscaena and dies 24 January 41

I love how Suetonius pushes all the right buttons to make the reader love and despise the Caesars. Caligula was his most sustained hatchet job. This grim and menacing figure, even when played with the charm of John Hurt in I, Claudius, makes Nero seem merely to have been a petulant boy operating under the influence of affluenza.

The ruins of the palace on the Palatine looking toward the Circus Maximus with a United Nations office building in the distance

After reading 57 chapters of Rome gone bonkers in Seutonius’ life of Gaius, we all know that Caligula has it coming. Our narrator tells us, “While he was running riot and laying waste in this way, a number of people had the idea of making an attempt on his life … Many prodigies foretold his violent end.”

Ita bacchantem atque grassantem non defuit plerisque animus adoriri … Futurae caedis multa prodigia exstiterunt.

The cryptoporticus on the Palatine believed to be site of the murder

His murder—undertaken during public games and performed in a passageway beneath the palace—was dramatic and messy.

“On the ninth day before the Kalends of February … There are two versions of the rest of the story. Some say that while he was speaking to the boys Chaerea, approaching from behind, gave the emperor’s neck a deep cut with his sword, shouting, “Take this!;’ then the tribune Cornelius Sabinus, the other conspirator, ran his chest through from the front. Others report that Sabinus, who had arranged for soldiers who were in on the plot to get rid of the crowd, asked Caligula for the password following usual military practice. When Caligula replied ‘Jupiter,’ Chaerea shouted ‘Let it be so!’ As Caligula looked behind him, Chaerea split his jaw with a blow. As he lay with his limbs twisted up, repeatedly calling out that he was alive, others finished him off with 30 blows. All acted on the signal, ‘Again,’ Some even stabbed him in the nuts.”

VIIII. Kal. Febr. hora fere septima … Duplex dehinc fama est: alii tradunt adloquenti pueros a tergo Chaeream cervicem gladio caesim graviter percussisse praemissa voce: ‘hoc age!’ Dehinc Cornelium Sabinum, alterum e coniuratis, tribunum ex adverso traiecisse pectus; alii Sabinum summota per conscios centuriones turba signum more militiae petisse et Gaio ‘Iovem dante Chaeream exclamasse: ‘accipe ratum!’ Respicientique maxillam ictu discidisse. Iacentem contractisque membris clamitantem se vivere ceteri vulneribus triginta confecerunt; nam signum erat omnium: ‘repete!’ Quidam etiam per obscaena ferrum adegerunt.

View across the Circus Maximus toward the ruins of the Palatine

Keats fading in Rome “…the voice I hear this passing night…”

My first apartment in Rome was just down the street from the grave of John Keats. The non-Catholic cemetery is a beautiful place. In those early days I would visit often, or at least look through the grated aperture in the wall close to his tombstone.

Here lies One Whose name was writ in Water

At that time you would ring the bell and the caretaker or the old woman who looked after the cats would unlock the gate. Now the place has been made an institution and they sell post cards, discourage the presence of “too many cats” and have spiffed up the place in way that makes you wish they’d left it the way it was.

Twenty years passed before I visited the Keats-Shelley House by the Spanish Steps. It was a Saturday in the summer and even in that season if you’re out early the weather is fine and the streets mostly empty. I was alone in the museum. The room where he died is the part that interested me. The artifacts are not authentic but merely an approximation. Roman law required all the objects that were in the presence of a person with tuberculosis be destroyed after death. That occurred in this case.

Death room of John Keats

Keats’ friend the painter Joseph Severn (obit 1879) looked after the poet during this final illness. They were strangers in town and had little money. Fear of Keats’ illness made them unwelcome guests. Severn wrote a series of letters informing others of their circumstances. Here is part of a letter dated 15 January 1821, five weeks before the poet’s death.

Poor Keats has just fallen asleep. I have watched him and read to him to his very last wink. He has been saying to me, “Severn, I can see under your quiet look immense twisting and contending. You don’t know what you are reading. You are enduring for me more than I’d have you. O! that my last hour has come. What is it puzzles you now? What is it happens?” I tell him that “nothing happens, nothing worries me beyond his seeing, that it has been the dull day.” Getting from myself to his recovery, and then my painting, and then England, and then – but they are all lies; my heart almost leaps to deny them, for I have the veriest load of care that ever came upon these shoulders of mine. Keats is sinking daily. He is dying of a consumption, of a confirmed consumption. Perhaps another three weeks may lose him forever. But I pray that some kind of comfort may come to his lot, that some angel of goodness will lead him through this dark wilderness.

letter of severn
Sketch of Keats by Severn

It so happened I was due in London a day or two after that visit to the Keats-Shelley House. I stayed with a friend in Hampstead, just down the street from Keats House there. In Keats’ time it was almost country, now it’s a green and posh place in the city. Here he wrote a number of poems, including “Ode to a Nightingale.”

Hampstead home where Keats was a guest prior to leaving for Rome

Fade far away, dissolve and quite forget / What thou amongst the leaves hast never known, / The weariness, the fever and the fret / Here where men sit and hear each other groan; / Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; / Where but to think is to be full of sorrow / And leaden-eyed despairs, / Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, / Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

ode to a nightingale

The end of Galba 15 January 69 “…he was capable of being emperor had he never ruled”

Servius Sulpicius Galba was the first man to fall in the year of the four emperors. It seems his old-fashioned ways and his lack of finesse in the political realities of the principate led to his failure as emperor and his murder in the Forum 15 January 69.

Here’s some of what Tacitus and Suetonius tell us about the man and his times.

Bust of Galba in the Capitoline Museum

Tacitus on the death and character of Galba

Galba’s body lay abandoned for many hours. Later under cover of darkness it was abused by soldiers and other men. Finally, Argius, his confidant and one of his former slaves, buried it in a humble grave at his old master’s villa. Galba’s head, which had been mutilated then impaled on a pole, was found the next day at the tomb of Petrobius—a freedman of Nero whom Galba had executed—and was placed with the body, which had already been cremated. This was the end of Servius Galba. He lived with good fortune for 73 years through the reigns of five emperors. He was happier under the rule of others than in his own. His family was of ancient nobility and possessed great wealth. Galba himself was of middling genius, being rather free from faults than possessing virtues. He was neither careless of reputation nor one to boast of it. He was not covetous of the property of others; he was frugal with his own, and greedy with the state’s. Kindly and complacent toward friends and freedmen, if he found them honest; if they were dishonest, he was blind even to a fault. But his high birth and the terror which the times inspired masked the truth, so that men called wisdom what was really indolence. While he was a younger commander, he enjoyed a reputation for his military service in the German provinces. As proconsul he governed Africa with moderation and, when he was already an old man, ruled Hither Spain with the same uprightness. He seemed a man of renown in private life, and in everyone’s opinion he was capable of being emperor had he never ruled.

Galbae corpus diu neglectum et licentia tenebrarum plurimis ludibriis vexatum dispensator Argius e prioribus servis humili sepultura in privatis eius hortis contexit. caput per lixas calonesque suffixum laceratumque ante Patrobii tumulum (libertus in Neronis punitus a Galba fuerat) postera demum die repertum et cremato iam corpori admixtum est. hunc exitum habuit Servius Galba, tribus et septuaginta annis quinque principes prospera fortuna emensus et alieno imperio felicior quam suo. vetus in familia nobilitas, magnae opes: ipsi medium ingenium, magis extra vitia quam cum virtutibus. famae nec incuriosus nec venditator; pecuniae alienae non adpetens, suae parcus, publicae avarus; amicorum libertorumque, ubi in bonos incidisset, sine reprehensione patiens, si mali forent, usque ad culpam ignarus. sed claritas natalium et metus temporum obtentui, ut, quod segnitia erat, sapientia vocaretur. dum vigebat aetas militari laude apud Germanas floruit. pro consule Africam moderate, iam senior citeriorem Hispaniam pari iustitia continuit, maior privato visus dum privatus fuit, et omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset.

Tacitus historiae
Manuscript of Tacitus – Codex Mediceus

Galba in the Forum and on the Via Aurelia

Galba was stuck down beside the Lacus Curtius and was left lying just as he was until a common soldier, returning from a distribution of grain, threw down his load and cut off the head. Then, since there was no hair by which to grasp it, he hid in within his clothing, but later thrust his thumb into the mouth and so carried it to Otho, who then, handed it over to his followers, who set it on a lance and paraded it about the camp with jeers, crying out from time to time, ‘Pretty boy Galba, exult in your vigor!’ The special reason for this insolent joke was, that the report had gotten around a few days before, that when someone had congratulated him on still looking young and vigorous, he quoted Homer: ‘As yet my strength is unimpaired’. Then the abused head of the former emperor was bought by a freedman of Patrobius Neronianus for a hundred pieces of gold; he had it thrown aside in the place where his patron had been executed by Galba’s order. At last, however, his freedman Argivus deposited the head with the rest of Galba’s body in the emperor’s family tomb in his gardens on the Via Aurelia.

Iugulatus est ad lacum Curti ac relictus ita uti erat, donec gregarius miles a frumentatione rediens abiecto onere caput ei amputavit; et quoniam capillo arripere non poterat, in gremium abdidit, mox inserto per os pollice ad Othonem detulit. Ille lixis calonibusque donavit, qui hasta suffixum non sine ludibrio circum castra portarunt adclamantes identidem: “Galba Cupido, fruaris aetate tua,” maxime irritati ad talem iocorum petulantiam, quod ante paucos dies exierat in vulgus, laudanti cuidam formam suam ut adhuc floridam et vegetam respondisse eum Ἔτι μοι μένος ἔμπεδόν ἐστιν. Ab is Patrobii Neroniani libertus centum aureis redemptum eo loco, ubi iussu Galbae animadversum in patronum suum fuerat, abiecit. Sero tandem dispensator Argivus et hoc et ceterum truncum in privatis eius hortis Aurelia via sepulturae dedit.

Suetonius VIta Galbae
Ruins of the Lacus Curtius and the site of the murder of Galba

Galba was a blueblood

Galba, who succeded Nero, was in no way related to the house of the Caesars, though he was, without doubt, of very eminent birth. His own line was a great and ancient one, for he would always have it included in the inscriptions on his statues that he was the great-grandson of Quintus Catulus Capitolinus. When was emperor he even had in his entrance hall his family tree put on display, in which he traced back his father’s origins to Jupiter and those of his mother to Pasiphae, the wife of Minos.

Neroni Galba successit nullo gradu contingens Caesarum domum, sed haud dubie nobilissimus magnaque et vetere prosapia, ut qui statuarum titulis pronepotem se Quinti Catuli Capitolini semper ascripserit, imperator vero etiam stemma in atrio proposuerit, quo paternam originem ad Iovem, maternam ad Pasiphaen Minois uxorem referret.

Vita Galbae

Galba’s mysterious cognomen

It is not clear why the first of the Sulpicii to have the name Galba acquired it, nor by what means. Some people think that, having besieged a town in Spain without success, he eventually set fire to it with torches smeared with galbanum. Others think it was because during a lengthy illness he made repeated us of galbeum, that is, remedies wrapped in wool. There are some who believe that it was because he looked very fat, which the Gauls term galba, while other take the opposite view that it was because he was very thin, so that he resembled the insect which lives in oak trees and is called the galba.

Qui prius Sulpiciorum cognomen Galbae tulit, cur aut unde traxerit, ambigitur. Quidam putant, quod oppidum Hispaniae frustra diu oppugnatum inlitis demum galbano facibus succenderit; alii, quod in diuturna valitudine galbeo, id est remediis lana involutis, assidue uteretur: nonnulli, quod praepinguis fuerit visus, quem galbam Galli vocent; vel contra, quod tam exilis, quam sunt animalia quae in aesculis nascuntur appellanturque galbae. 

Vita Galbae
Imperial intaglio of the Julio-Claudian period

Galba as a youngster

Servius Galba, who became emperor, was born on the ninth day before the Kalends of January in the consulship of Marcus Valerius Messala and Gnaeus Lentulus, in a villa on the hill near Terracina, on the left as you travel toward Fundi … It is common knowledge that, when he was still a boy and, along with his contemporaries, was paying his respects to Augustus, the emperor pinched his cheek and said, “You, too, child, will have a taste of our imperial power.”

Ser. Galba imperator M. Valerio Messala Cn. Lentulo cons. natus est VIIII. Kal. Ian. in villa colli superposita prope Tarracinam, sinistrorsus Fundos petentibus, adoptatusque a noverca sua Livia nomen et Ocellae cognomen assumptis, mutato praenomine; nam Lucium mox pro Servio usque ad tempus imperii usurpavit. Constat Augustum puero adhuc, salutanti se inter aequales, apprehensa buccula dixisse: καὶ σὺ τέκνον τῆς ἀρχῆς ἡμῶν παρατρώξῃ.

Vita Galbae
Fresco from the imperial villa at Prima Porta

Galba the physical man

He was of medium height, completely bald, with blue eyes, a hooked nose, and hands and feet so crippled by arthritis that he could not endure wearing shoes for long, nor could be unroll books for even hold them. On his right side, his flesh extended and hung down so far that it could hardly be kept in place by a bandage.

Statura fuit iusta, capite praecalvo, oculis caeruleis, adunco naso, manibus pedibusque articulari morbo distortissimis, ut neque calceum perpeti nec libellos evolvere aut tenere omnino valeret. Excreverat etiam in dexteriore latere eius caro praependebatque adeo ut aegre fascia substringeretur.

Vita Galbae
Imperial ruins on the Palatine

Galba in love

His sexual preference inclined toward males, but only those who were especially tough and in full manhood. They say that when Icelus, one of his long-standing favorites, came to him in Spain bringing news of the death of Nero, Galba not only welcomed him publicly with the most ardent kisses but begged him to have his body hair plucked at once, then took him aside.

Libidinis in mares pronior et eos non nisi praeduros exoletosque: ferebant in Hispania Icelum e veteribus concubinis de Neronis exitu nuntiantem non modo artissimis osculis palam exceptum ab eo, sed ut sine mora velleretur oratum atque seductum.

Vita Galbae

Truman Capote and his pet bird Lola in Rome

Truman Capote wasn’t much of a sightseer. Still, he seems to have had a wonderful time in Rome, the city with more sights to see than perhaps any other. He was more interested in examining personalities, especially the bigshots who opened the world to him. And he always had a pet companion. He lived with his crow Lola at 33 Via Margutta, a little street not far from Piazza di Spagna.

Snowfall Via Margutta

We settled for the winter in Rome, first at a hotel (the management of which expelled us after five days, and was not even a first-class establishment), then in an apartment at 33 Via Margutta, a narrow street often painted by bad painters and renowned for the number of cats who dwell there, unowned cats sheltering in the overgrown patios and existing on the charity of half-mad elderly women, crones who every day tour the cat jungles with sacks of scrap food.

Here he is writing to his high school teacher Catherine Wood on January 3, 1953.

I am freezing in Rome. I have two electrical heaters but they just barely take the chill off the room. The floors are marble—absolute ice. I can hardly hold this pen. Princess Caetani arranged for me to have a private audience with the Pope. It was supposed to last 15 minutes, but I stayed more than half-an-hour, an extraordinary man, so really charming and beautiful.

Via Margutta

You can read about Lola, the apartment and the neighborhood in Capote’s posthumous collection of essays, Portraits and Observations.

Our apartment was a penthouse; to reach it one climbed six flights of steep dark stairs. We had three rooms a balcony. It was because of the balcony that I rented it; after the vastness of the view from the Sicilian terrace, the balcony offered, in contrast, a miniature scene as tranquil and perfect as firelight: several Roman rooftops, faded orange, faded ocher, and a few across-the-way windows (behind which episodes of family life could be observed).

Truman and Lola

When the sun was out Lola always took her bath on the balcony balustrade. Her tub was a silver soup dish; after a moment of sprightly immersion in the shallow water, she would spring up and out, and as though casting off a crystal cloak, shake yourself, swell her feathers; later, for long bliss-saturated hours, she drowsed in the sun, her head tilted back, her beak ajar, her eyes shut. To watch her was a soothing experience.

January at old San Clemente 533 Rome

Today Rome’s a little bit like it was when the priest Mercurius at San Clemente became Pope John II on 2 January 533. This man was the first pope to be called something else after his election since it seemed less than good that the head of the church should carry the name of a pagan god. His move didn’t inititate the tradition of newly elected poples adopting a pontifical name. That began in the tenth century.

John II, also called Mercurius, the son of Proiectus, Roman born from the Caelian hill, was pontiff for two years, four months and six days. He was bishop in the time of Gothic king Athalaric and the emperor Justinian.

Liber Pontificalis – Life of John II
Remains of fifth-century church in later church building

Iohannes, qui et Mercurius, natione Romanus, ex patre Proiecto, de Caeliomonte, sedit ann. II mens. IIII d. VI. Fuit autem temporibus Athalarici regis et Iustiniani Augusti.

He was pope at the end of the Gothic interlude in Italy, on the eve of the Roman reconquest. In the years before imperial armies entered Italy in 535, Justinian performed cultural diplomacy by and making a statement of faith in line with papal doctrine (“written in his own hand” scripto cyrographo proprio) and making gifts of liturgical objects made of gold, silver, silk, and ivory and jewels crafted in Constantinople.

Remains from early church building including fragment of the fourth-century dedicatory inscription

Justinian’s gift giving might have included some objects in San Clemente that date from the career of John. Before you head down to the scavi, look for his name in the new (twelfth-century) church. Some of the liturgical furniture there was first used in the ruined church below. The sculpted marble panels and columns were made in Constantinople and were set in place with he was priest at San Clemente still with the name Mercurius.

Panel of the chancel screen with monogram of John II

Find his papal monogram on the schola cantorum, then read his name Mercurius on the columns that were the balustrade of the altar then to frame the tomb of the Venetian Giovanni Venier 900 years in the future.

Note screen with monogram on the right between the altar and the schola cantorum

Titus Flavius Vespasianus—the delight and darling of the human race— was born in Rome 30 December 39 CE

Have you see today’s obituary of the great humanist and master of literature (and my teacher and friend) Reggie Foster in the NYT? It’s a little bit of fact, more exaggeration, and the repetition of stories that began as sarcastic jokes and later presented as confession in various sources. The obit in Reggie’s hometown Milwaukee paper was warmer, but the best account of the man’s personality is the recent article, The Vatican’s Latinist.

Suetonius was frequent visitor to Reggie’s classroom. The life of Titus is not my favorite, but since it’s his birthday here are a few highlights to savor anglice et latine.


Titus, who bore his father’s cognomen Vespasianus, was the delight and darling of the human race. Whether through innate disposition, policy, or fortune, such was his success that he secured the good will of all, and that too—a most difficult task—while he was emperor. For while he was a private citizen and even during the reign of his father, he did not evade hatred, let alone criticism by the public. He was born three days before the kalends of January in the memorable year that Caligula was murdered, in a modest house near the septizonium. The room itself was dark and dingy, and today it still exists and is on display.

Titus cognomine paterno, amor ac deliciae generis humani, (tantum illi ad promerendam omnium voluntatem vel ingenii vel artis vel fortunae superfuit, et, quod difficillimum est, in imperio: quando privatus atque etiam sub patre principe ne odio quidem, nedum vituperatione publica caruit), natus est III. Kal. Ian. insigni anno Gaiana nece, prope Septizonium, sordidis aedibus, cubiculo vero perparvo et obscuro (nam manet adhuc et ostenditur)

Denarius of Titus

A man of quality

His qualities of mind and body were conspicuous even when he was a boy but still more when he came of age. His appearance was striking, conveying both authority and charm; he was unusually strong though not tall, and his stomach protruded a little. He had an exceptional memory and the ability to grasp almost all the arts of both war and peace.

In puero statim corporis animique dotes exsplenduerunt, magisque ac magis deinceps per aetatis gradus; forma egregia et cui non minus auctoritatis inesset quam gratiae, praecipuum robur, quamquam neque procera statura et ventre paulo proiectiore; memoria singularis, docilitas ad omnis fere tum belli tum pacis artes

Arch of Titus

Randy Romanus

He was suspected of self-indulgence on the grounds that he would engage in drinking bouts that lasted  with the most dissolute companions that lasted past midnight, he was also accused of lustfulness because of his troupes of catamites and eunuchs, and because of his passion for Queen Berenice, to whom he is even said to have promised marriage.

Praeter saevitiam suspecta in eo etiam luxuria erat, quod ad mediam noctem comissationem cum profusissimo quoque familiarum extenderet; nec minus libido, propter exoletorum et spadonum greges propterque insignem reginae Berenices amorem, cum etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur

Warren Cup – British Museum


He was as generous as any of his imperial predecessors. At the dedication of the Colosseum and of the nearby baths that hear his name, he put on the most splendid gladiatorial games. He also staged a mock battle at the old Naumachia, and in the same place a gladiatorial show; on a single day 5,000 of a great variety of animals were killed in a single day.

Et tamen nemine ante se munificentia minor, amphitheatro dedicato thermisque iuxta celeriter exstructis, munus edidit apparatissimum largissimusque; dedit et navale proelium in veteri naumachia, ibidem et gladiatores atque uno die quinque milia omne genus ferarum.

Piranesi – Ruins of the Baths of Titus


During his reign a number of disasters occurred, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania and an enormous fire Rome that lasted three days and nights; and a plague that had unprecedented severity. In the face of calamites of such magnitude, Titus expressed not just the concern of an emperor, but the love which only a parent can provide, giving consolation in his edicts and as much practical help that his resources could provide.

Quaedam sub eo fortuita ac tristia acciderunt, ut conflagratio Vesevi montis in Campania, et incendium Romae per triduum totidemque noctes, item pestilentia quanta non temere alias. In iis tot adversis ac talibus non modo principis sollicitudinem sed et parentis affectum unicum praestitit, nunc consolando per edicta, nunc opitulando quatenus suppeteret facultas.

Vesuvius and Pompeii

Fitzgerald’s Lost City ” … We felt like small children in a great bright unexplored barn … “

I spent the first six weeks of COVID at home in New York. Neighbors from my building disappeared into ambulances and will not return, and I saw once busy streets empty of crowds and all machine traffic expect ambulances whose shrill sirens sounded continuously night and day and reminded me of the air raid signals familiar from WWII documentaries. Fortunately, I’ve been able to spend much of the time since in mountain and wooded retreats, including a visit to Fitzgerald’s Asheville refuge. I packed Scott’s essays, and more than once I’ve read “My Lost City,” impressions/reflections made during his return to New York after being driven away from the city.

Fitzgerald hit the New York City big time in 1920. He was a celebrity starring in The Jazz Age, a moment he named and worked to define. Scott left the City for a few years and when he returned New York was different and so was he. “My Lost City” (an essay written in 1932 but not published during his lifetime) talks about his early days in New York when he had everything he’d ever wanted and that he knew it wouldn’t last.

An afternoon alone in our ‘apartment’ eating olive sandwiches and drinking a quart of Bushmills whiskey then out into the freshly bewitched city, through strange doors into strange apartments with intermittent swings along in taxis through the soft nights. At last we were one with New York, pulling it after us through every portal. Even now I go into many flats with the sense that I have been there before or in the one above or below—And lastly from that period I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew that I would never be so happy again.

Death of a B-movie masterpiece novel writer

Script writer and novelist Nathanael West died December 22. 1940, one day after his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Like the people he depicted in The Day of the Locust, West moved to Hollywood seeking fulfillment but instead observed and joined in a way of life more like a treatment for a lurid B-movie than the lush fantasy of a carefully weeded major motion picture.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

The Day of the Locust was West’s final novel, and he wrote it at the same time Fitzgerald was writing The Love of the Last Tycoon.

Both Fitzgerald and West were always looking for something more somewhere else. Restless minds. Fun fact: West was a Jew who married an Irish Catholic. Scott was an Irish Catholic whose last paramour was a Jew.

It’s no wonder that these revelatory behind-the-scene stories of Golden Age Hollywood were produced in the New Hollywood of the 1970s.

The Day of the Locust came out in 1975 (director John Schlesinger, screenwriter Waldo Salt, starring Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (yes!).

The Last Tycoon appeared in 1976 (director Elia Kazan, screenwriter Harold Pinter, starring Robert Deniro (and a great cast).

The Death of Vitellius—20 December 69—“Whatever you may say, I was your emperor.”

Tactitus observed that the death of Nero made plain the new reality of power in Rome: “A well-hidden secret of the principate had been revealed: it was possible, it seemed, for an emperor to be made outside of Rome.”

Aulus Vitellius was the last princeps to die in the year of four emperors, Galba and Otho having gone before him. It was said of Galba, Vitellius’ late predecessor, “In everyone’s opinion, he was capable of being emperor had he never ruled.” Nobody would tag that judgement to Vitellius.

Vitellius’ family was obscure to Roman writers. Some posited an illustrious past. Others believed the founder of the family to have been a former slave whose success in business permitted his opportunistic descendants to enter the circle of movers-and-shakers in Rome.

Suetonius suggests that Vitellius found his place (and advanced the fortunes of his family) among the smart set on Capri, where he earned his first ribbon, “His boyhood and early youth he spent on Capri among the companions of Tiberius—ever after he was known by the nickname ‘TightBum,’ and it was thought that his physical charms were the basis of his father’s political success”.

Pueritiam primamque adulescentiam Capreis egit inter Tiberiana scorta et ipse perpetuo spintriae cognomine notatus existimatusque corporis gratia initium et causa incrementorum patri fuisse.

Suetonius Vita Vitellii

Like other men of the ruling class, the younger Vitellius, “corrupted by every kind of disgrace,”was adept more currying favor with successive emperors and their advisors than establishing his own gravitas and auctoritas.

Lucius Vitellius, father to the future emperor, was the most successful politician of this generation. He earned a reputation as a skilled soldier and administrator in the provinces, but acted as synchophatic leader of the Senate while in Rome. He was consul three times, censor with the emperor Claudius as his colleague in 47, a dedicatee of a statue in the Forum, and he received a public funeral at his death in 51—all exceptional honors.

The son had a different story. To use a baseball analogy, Vitellius was born on third base but thought he’d hit a triple. He was the privileged boy born to the trappings of power (“he won the consulship, various priesthoods, and a name and place among the leading figures of Rome all due to his father’s eminence and without the slightest effort on his own part”) but with little awareness of how power should be used.

In this private life, Vitellius had a reputation as self-indulgent and deviant.I’ll stick to one of his appetites. He was a big eater, “having at least three feasts, and sometimes four, in a day—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a drinking party—always making room in his gullet by regular vomiting.”

Sed vel praecipue luxuriae saevitiaeque deditus, epulas trifariam semper, interdum quadrifariam dispertiebat, in ientacula et prandia et cenas comissationesque, facile omnibus sufficiens vomitandi consuetudine.

Vita Vitellii

He favored costly extravagant meals with exotic dishes brought from around the empire, “He blended the livers of scar fish, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingos, and innards of lampreys which had been sought out by ships’ captains and galleys from Parthia to the the pillars of Hercules.”

In hac scarorum iocinera, phasianarum et pavonum cerebella, linguas phoenicopterum, murenarum lactes a Parthia usque fretoque Hispanico per navarchos ac triremes petitarum, commiscuit.

Vita Vitellii

And still, he was always ready for a snack. Vitellius’ insatiable appetite didn’t respect times and places, “He could not resist, when making a sacrifice, snatching bits of meat and sacrificial cake from the altars, almost from the fire.”

Ut autem homo non profundae modo sed intempestivae quoque ac sordidae gulae, ne in sacrificio quidem umquam aut itinere ullo temperavit, quin inter altaria ibidem statim viscus et farra paene rapta e foco manderet, circaque viarum popinas fumantia obsonia, vel pridiana atque semesa.

Vita Vitellii

Later, the empire unsettled by the death of Nero and the extinction of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Galba believed his lassitude and limited competence made Vitellius a safe pick for the restive legions there, “To general surprise, he was sent by Galba to take command in lower Germany… But in Galba’s judgement, no man was less t be feared than one who thought only about his stomach.”

But there Vitellius found himself in a pickle. As Tacitus observed, “In Vitellius’ case his father’s record as consul on three separate occasions, as censor and as colleague with Claudius had long since imposed upon the son the qualifications to be emperor and robbed him of the feeling that he was safe as a subject.” His inheritance had become a trap. Lacking enterprise to further any ambition of his own, he became the tool of men who used Vitellius’ status to further their own interests. Once he was acclaimed emperor by the troops, his position prevented any return to life as it was just a day before.

After the claim to the purple, Vitellius trailed his victorius army to Rome by a few months. In nothern Italy, he based by the field still scattered with corpses from the battle of Bedriacum, where his crown was won. “The smell of a dead enemy is succulent—and even better in civil war.” And so Vitellius was not the hero of his own victory. From Germany to Gaul to Italy, other men opened the way to Rome for him and as long as his luck lasted were rewarded for their work.

Vitellius was slow to arrive in the capital. Acclaimed emperor in January; his rival Otho was dead in April; in July the new princeps arrived in Rome. Pretty quickly time ran out on Vitellius. Vespasian’s soldiers were in the city, but Vitellius had no handle on events in the city.  Vitellius went to ground, “And so at once he hid himself in a closed sedan and with just two servants, a baker and a cook, secretly made his way to the Aventine and his father’s house, so that from there he might escape to Campania.”

Suetonius’ depicts Vitellius in his final hours alone on the Palatine able neither to rally Romans to his defense as emperor nor to seek refuge with his brother and other supporters outside the city. Bereft, he returned to the palace and found it deserted. When his killers tracked Vitellius to the, he was hiding beneath a mattress in the gatehouse, hoping to go unnoticed like a nowhere-left-to-run fugitive on Cops.

“But shortly afterwards, when there was slight and vague rumor of peace, he allowed himself to be taken back to the palace. When he found that it was quite deserted and those who were with him were slipping away, he put on belt full of gold coins and took refuge in the porter’s lodge, having chained a dog at the entrance and blocked the door with a bed and a mattress.”

Postridie responsa opperienti nuntiatum est per exploratorem hostes appropinquare. Continuo igitur abstrusus gestatoria sella, duobus solis comitibus, pistore et coco, Aventinum et paternam domum clam petit, ut inde in Campaniam fugeret; mox levi rumore et incerto, tamquam pax impetrata esset, referri se in Palatium passus est. Vbi cum deserta omnia repperisset, dilabentibus et qui simul erant, zona se aureorum plena circumdedit confugitque in cellulam ianitoris, religato pro foribus cane lectoque et culcita obiectis.

Vita Vitellii

Vitellius died 20 December during Saturnalia, the merry Roman festival that was a time of license and inverted social norms. With Vitellius, the mighty had indeed fallen, and torment of the doomed emperor was fuel to the festa.

“Finally with his hands tied behind his back, a noose around his neck, and his clothes torn, he was dragged half-naked into the Forum and, amid gross abuse, physical and verbal, along the whole length of the Sacred Way, his head pulled back by the hair, in the way of condemned criminals, and even his chin was held up with the point a sword, so that he should be made to show his face.  Some threw dung and filth, others hurled mockery and other abuse, calling him an arsonist and a glutton, and deriding his physical oddities, his unusual height, the bulging bulk, the face reddened by love of drink, and the crippled leg, caused years back in circus by Caligula playing charioteer. Then the exemplary punishment. Vitellius was butchered on the Gemonian steps—the place where the corpses of the condemned were exposed— and his rent flesh was dragged by a hook and tossed into the Tiber.”

Irruperant iam agminis antecessores ac nemine obvio rimabantur, ut fit, singula. Ab is extractus e latebra, sciscitantes quis esset (nam ignorabatur) et ubi esse Vitellium sciret, mendacio elusit; deinde agnitus rogare non destitit, quasi quaedam de salute Vespasiani dicturus, ut custodiretur interim vel in carcere, donec religatis post terga manibus, iniecto cervicibus laqueo, veste discissa seminudus in forum tractus est inter magna rerum verborumque ludibria per totum viae Sacrae spatium, reducto coma capite, ceu noxii solent, atque etiam mento mucrone gladii subrecto, ut visendam praeberet faciem neve summitteret; quibusdam stercore et caeno incessentibus, aliis incendiarium et patinarium vociferantibus, parte vulgi etiam corporis vitia exprobrante; erat enim in eo enormis proceritas, facies rubida plerumque ex vinulentia, venter obesus, alterum femur subdebile impulsu olim quadrigae, cum auriganti Gaio ministratorem exhiberet. Tandem apud Gemonias minutissimis ictibus excarnificatus atque confectus et inde unco tractus in Tiberim.

Vita Vitellii

Tacitus’ account follows the same outline but colors with new detail of Vitellius’ final stroll through the Forum, the seething heart of empire.

“At the point of the sword, Vitellius was at one moment forced to look up and face the jeering, at the next not only to fix his eyes on the statues of himself as they were pulled down but above all on the rostra and the place where Galba was murdered. Finally, the soldiers and the crowd drove him to the Gemonian steps, where the body of Flavius Sabinus had lain. One remark of his, and one only, was overheard which showed a not wholly degenerate spirit. When a tribune mocked him, he retorted, ‘Whatever you may say, I was your emperor.’”

Vitellium infestis mucronibus coactum modo erigere os et offerre contumeliis, nunc cadentis statuas suas, plerumque rostra aut Galbae occisi locum contueri, postremo ad Gemonias, ubi corpus Flavii Sabini iacuerat, propulere. una vox non degeneris animi excepta, cum tribuno insultanti se tamen imperatorem eius fuisse respondit; ac deinde ingestis vulneribus concidit. et vulgus eadem pravitate insectabatur interfectum qua foverat viventem.

Tacitus Historiae