Palatine: An Alternate History of the Caesars
by Peter Stothard (W&N £22,336pp)
Rome’s eighth emperor, Aulus Vitellius, isn’t exactly a household name, and probably not even in his own household.
In fact, it is doubtful that anyone outside a narrow circle of classicists has even heard of him. Despised by almost everyone who knew him, he turned the vice of gluttony into something almost approaching an art form.
But Peter Stothard, the former editor of The Times and a brilliant classicist, embarks on his latest scintillating foray into the ancient world with a chilling account of Aulus’ final hours.
Obese, unshaven and panting with fear, he huddles in the kennel rooms of the Palatinate palace. It is AD 69 and Aulus, the third in what is called the Year of the Four Emperors, knows his time is up and plans to escape with a fortune in gold coins tied around his waist.
Outside stands the seething, seething mass of Roman soldiers loyal to his eventual successor Vespasian and victorious in a ruthless, bloody civil war. The bed and mattress he placed above the door collapses to the side and an officer grabs Aulus by the throat.
Partying: Helen Mirren in the 1979 film Caligula at a banquet, which showed the hierarchy of power
He is an ordinary man with the standard vices of the time: as a youth he was close to Emperor Tiberius and nicknamed ‘Tight-bum’ and has a penchant for gambling, as well as being obliterated by food and drink. He has little to leave behind for posterity.
Captured, he is marched through the streets of Rome to the Forum by soldiers, still trying to bribe and negotiate his way to safety. People poke his stomach and pull his hair – this is not a treatment for an emperor.
But he is not killed instantly, he dies slowly from blows and cuts, his body is torn into thick fleshy pieces. Eventually, his severed head disappears into the crowd at the base of the Capitol. Being a Roman emperor was not a job with a long life expectancy. You needed special talents to survive.
Palatine tells the story of Rome between Augustus, the first Roman emperor who died in 14 AD, and the military hero Vespasian, whose reign from 69 to 79 AD brought a long period of political stability and financial expansion.
With lively prose in short, dynamic chapters, Stothard also covers the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, the Jewish unrest at the time of Christ and the invasion of Britain, but this extremely well-researched, exciting book is more of a story about increasing wealth and prosperity instead of war, as well as corruption, greed, gluttony and desire.
Rome’s eighth emperor, Aulus Vitellius (pictured), isn’t exactly a household name, and probably not even in his own household
These pages inhabit the bureaucrats, courtiers, slaves, chefs, freedmen and women, prostitutes and lovers who stream through the chambers and corridors of power in the Palatine Palace, intriguing, betraying, flattering and deceptive.
Life at court may have had its dangers and uncertainties, but there were also immense rewards and pleasures. In contrast to the macho-militarism of standard Roman history, Stothard emphasizes the role of women: powerful, cunning, and unlikely to be killed in battle, of course.
We meet a host of unforgettable characters, including Calvia Crispinilla, one of the close courtiers of the famous dissolute Nero. She was born in Africa and became the “mistress of the imperial wardrobe.”
Her enemies described her as “Nero’s teacher of vice,” which is saying something, so she probably had more strings to her bow than just a good fashion sense.
This is also a spectacular book about food. Politics and food were inextricably linked in ancient Rome. Parties showed power. pictured; A Roman feast (Saturnalia), second half of the 19th century
She was also a skilled political operator. Sensing that Nero’s days were numbered, she raised a legion against him in her native Africa and hastened his demise. Deftly, she stepped away from political life and made a pile in the wine trade.
Rich and without heirs, she had a huge influence and in my opinion is worthy of a movie in her own right. And of course there is Messalina, Claudius’ third wife – powerful and influential, ruthless and sexually predatory, she would prefer the beds of aristocrats and actors to those of her handicapped husband.
The actor Mnester had to be ordered into Messalina’s bed. She was known to compete with prostitutes for the greatest sexual stamina.
She wanted everything, including the most beautiful garden in Rome, full of cherry trees, vines and luxury items, which she forced the owner to sell to her.
Here she was killed on Claudius’ orders after he became convinced that she was planning to seize the throne. While Claudius got drunk over dinner, his once beautiful wife was murdered by a freedman, so he didn’t see her drive off in a cart like yard waste.
Antonia Caenis, a freedman and former secretary, was famous in her youth for her beauty and extraordinary memory. For a long time she was the mistress of Vespasian, who entrusted her with the task of selling priesthoods, governorships and other offices.
She was a very powerful woman behind the scenes, the Marcia Falkender of her time, if you will.
This is also a spectacular book about food. Politics and food were inextricably linked in ancient Rome. Celebrations showed strength. Ambitious politicians saw the benefits of banquets for votes: lavish meals prepared by top chefs, served by elegant waiters while girls played the harp, that sounds fun.
It is before the story of this book, but we learn that Julius Caesar threw a feast for 100,000 on the occasion of his first consulship, just before he was assassinated. He and his guests dined on lampreys, eel-like delicacies, and four different wines.
Stothard introduces us to Marcus Apicius, the man we remember for force feeding geese to produce foie gras and adding the flavors while the birds were alive.
Helen Mirren in the 1979 film Caligula surrounded by feathers while wearing a large gold headpiece
Apicius was the most notorious gourmet of the time, master of chopped seafood, stuffed dormouse and sow’s belly, an influential figure ready to scour the Mediterranean for the largest shrimp.
He stood for luxury and complexity of food, which of course made poisoning easier, disguised by the flavors of foie gras, camel heels and roasted ostrich, washed down with cobs of various wines. Delicious, but dangerous!
Meals were taken on benches around the emperor. Dishes started with bread and wine, something with eggs, then cucumber, asparagus, mullet, sweet carrots, stuffed marrow. Sometimes there were more elaborate luxuries, such as Apicius’s honey-drenched nightingales, filled with prunes, garnished with rose petals, served in a sauce of herbs and grape juice.
And if you could survive that, and perhaps a treacherous lover, or a scheming relative, or whatever the Palatine had in store for you, you could be on your way.
Once again Stothard has written a brilliant picture of the vivid realities of life in ancient times.