Truman Capote talks himself home “ … oases do occur … "

There’s no plaque on the facade of 70 Willow Street (one block from the harbor between Pineapple Street and Orange), but everyone knows that’s where Truman Capote once lived. In November 1959 Truman was there in the basement when he came across the article in The New York Times that was the genesis of his masterwork In Cold Blood.

I live in Brooklyn. By choice. Those ignorant of its allures are entitled to wonder why. For, taken as a whole, it is an uninviting community. A veritable veldt of tawdriness where even the noms des quartiers aggravate: Flatbush and Flushing Avenue, Bushwick, Brownsville, Red Hook. Yet, in the greenless, grime-gray, oases do occur, splendid contradiction, hearty echoes of healthier days. Of these seeming mirages, the purest example is the neighborhood in which I am situated, an area known as Brooklyn Heights.

Earlier the same year he wrote “A House on the Heights” for Holiday, a literary travel magazine. The essay was a profile of Brooklyn Heights, then a normal neighborhood in New York’s unglamorous, nearest outer borough.

Though I’d long been acquainted with the neighborhood, having now and then visited there, my closer association began two years ago, when a friend bought a house on Willow Street. One mild May evening he asked me over to inspect it. I was most impressed; exceedingly envious. There were twenty-eight rooms, high-ceilinged, well proportioned, and twenty-eight workable marble-mantled fireplaces. There was a beautiful staircase floating upward in white, swan-simple curves to a skylight of sunny amber-gold glass. The floors were fine, the real thing, hard lustrous timber; and the walls! In 1820, when the house was built, men knew how to make walls—thick as buffalo, immune to the mightiest cold, the meanest heat.

Eighty, seventy, sixty years ago, Brooklyn Heights was not the high-rollin’ place it has become. Within a few blocks around the promenade you’ll see plaques on the apartment houses of W.H. Auden, Richard Wright, Arthur Miller and Thomas Wolf. Norman Mailer stayed longer, but I don’t know the address.

French doors led to a spacious rear porch reminiscent of Louisiana. A porch canopied, completely submerged, as though under a lake of leaves, by an ancient but admirably vigorous vine weightily with grape-like bunches of wisteria. Beyond, a garden: a tulip tree, a blossoming pear, a perched black-and-red bird bending a feathery branch of forsythia. In the twilight, we talked, my friend and I. We sat on the porch consulting martinis—I urged him to have one more, another. It got to t be quite late, he began to see my point: Yes, twenty-eight rooms were rather a lot; and yes, it seemed only fair that I should have some of them.

Where once the brownstones were divided into apartments and rooming houses, now you need a few million bucks to get the same space. In 2012, the house at 70 Willow sold to the creator of the video game “Grand Theft Auto” for $12.5 million. The new renovations have transformed the house. I wonder if Truman would be able to find his way there now; anyway, the basement is no longer for rent.

Gothic as this glimpse is, the neighborhood nevertheless continued to possess, cheap rents aside, some certain appeal with brigades of the gifted—artists, writers—began to discover. Among those riding in on the initial wave was Hart Crane, whose poet’s eye, focusing on his window view, produced The Bridge. Later, soon after the success of Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe, noted prowler of the Brooklyn night, took quarters; an apartment equipped with the most publicized icebox in literature’s archives, which he maintained until his ‘overcrowded carcass’  was carried home to the hills of Carolina. At one time, a stretch of years in the early forties, a single heaven knows singular, house on Middagh Street boasted a roll call of residents that read: W.H. Auden, Richard Wright, Carson McCullers, Paul and Jane Bowles, the British composer Benjamin Britten, impresario and stage designer Oliver Smith, and authoress of murder entertainments—Miss Gypsy Rose Lee, and a Chimpanzee accompanied by trainer.

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

Stendhal feasting in Rome

Literature enables one to encounter a different version of a familiar world. The diary of the great novelist Stendhal gives today’s readers a sense of what it meant to experience Rome in a way no longer possible.

Only yesterday, January 18, 1836, the feast of the cathedra of St. Peter, as I came out of St. Peter’s at four o’clock and turned back to look at the dome, for the first time in my life I looked at it as I look at any other building., and I saw the iron balcony around the tambour. I said to myself, I’m seeing it as if for the first time, hitherto I have looked at as one looks at the woman one loves. I liked everything about it, (the tambour and the dome that is), how could I have found any fault in it?

Some things have changed since his time; others have stayed the same. An ascent to balcony atop the dome of St. Peter’s remains an amazing experience.

Atop the dome, 1946

Today the view is different. In Stendhal’s day, the basilica was surrounded on three sides by open country. Now it stands amid urban sprawl.

Toward St. Peter’s from what is now the Prati neighborhood, 1890s

Also, the neighborhood around basilica once bordered the piazza of St. Peter. That ended in the 1930s, when Mussolini demolished the neighborhood and opened a wide road now crowded with double-decker busses.

View toward Rome before the demolition

Other things have changed. Today the Feast of Cathedra of St. Peter is no longer January 18 but now February 22. That changed in 1960, by order of John XXIII, the same pope who convoked Vatican II. On whichever day you visit St. Peter’s, don’t forget to see Bernini’s the gilt bronze monument (with its alabaster window) that encases the medieval throne, gift from one of Charlemagne’s grandsons to John VIII in 875.

Berinini’s bronze encasement of the cathedra of St. Peter

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

All the things Spain can mean #Hemingway

If one likes A Moveable Feast there’s a good chance you’ll like at least parts of Death in the Afternoon. It’s a book about bullfighting and many other things—Spain, being in love, traveling, friendship, and learning how to write.

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were that produced the emotion that you experienced.

Death in the afternoon

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 tells 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 soliders and other men. Finally, Argius, his steward 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 the 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 greedy for the property of others; he was frugal with his own, 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.

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.

Ruins of the Lacus Curtius 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.


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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.


John II and new orthodoxy in Medieval Rome

The pontificate of John II (1 Jan. 533–27 May 535) occurred at a momentous time for the Roman Church and Italy, but little is none about his career. The best known fact about him is that he was the first pope known to have taken a new name upon his election as bishop of Rome. His near-contemporary biographer states that he was he bore the name Mercurius (the Roman god of commerce, communication, trickery etc.) until he assumed clerical office. The custom of the elected pope assuming a new name would be put into practice until much later.

Lanciani FuR plate XXXVI showing part of the Caelian Hill, residence of John II

John (II), also known as Mercurius, born in Rome, son of Projectus, from the Caelian Hill, held the see two years, four months, six days. He was bishop in the time of King Athalaric and the emperor Justinian. Then the devout emperor, in the depths of his love for the Christian religion, sent to the apostolic see by the hands of the bishops Hypatius and Demetrius a statement of his faith, written in his own hand. At the same time the Christian emperor Justinian Augustus presented to St. Peter the apostle: a gold scyphus surrounded with prases and pearls and two other silver chalices; silver scyphi weighing five pounds; two silver chalices each weighing five pounds; four purple-dyed gold-worked pallia. John performed a December ordination in the city of Rome, 15 priests; for various places 21 bishops. He was buried in St. Peter’s on May 27 in the second year after Lampadius’ consulship. The bishopric was vacant six days.

Liber Pontificalis
Silver sychphus

More importantly, he was pope at the when the emperor Justinian (527-565) began his reconquest of Italy, much of which had been governed by Gothic kings since the 470s. Justinian’s reconquest (victory was claimed in 554) was successful devastated Rome and Italy, causing impoverishment, destruction of infrastructure, spread of disease, loss of population, and finally brain drain, as many of the surviving member of the ruling class migrated to the imperial city of Constantinople. And, it was all for nothing. Just as the mopping up operations of the reconquest were completed, the Longobards, a people more hostile to Rome than the Goths were before the war, invaded and settled much of the Italian peninsula.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian and his retinue located at San Vitale in Ravenna

More importantly, he was pope at the when the emperor Justinian (527-565) began his reconquest of Italy, much of which had been governed by Gothic kings since the 470s. Justinian’s reconquest (victory was claimed in 554) was successful devastated Rome and Italy, causing impoverishment, destruction of infrastructure, spread of disease, loss of population, and finally brain drain, as many of the surviving member of the ruling class migrated to the imperial city of Constantinople. And, it was all for nothing. Just as the mopping up operations of the reconquest were completed, the Longobards, a people more hostile to Rome than the Goths were before the war, invaded and settled much of the Italian peninsula.

Truman Capote and his pet bird Lola in Rome

Truman Capote was not 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.

Ernest loves Sylvia “ … No one that I ever knew was nicer to me …”

Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead and cut thick below her ears at the line of the collar of the brown velvet jacket she wore. She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.

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

Here are some highlights from Suetonius.

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

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

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