Errors abound in Robert Hughes’s history of Rome


by Robert Hughes

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $50 hb, 534 pp, 97802978446448

There are two sorts of carelessness that a reviewer of history books will regularly see. The first is a minor marring of virtue: a small blot on a show of swashbuckling confidence and command over grand themes, a lack of care for what lesser men may think, arrogance even. We often call this being carefree rather than careless. The critic can correct and admire and move on. The second sort of carelessness is unsettling, almost a vice: a show of unconcern and shallow understanding, an arrogance of a different kind, a lack of care of any kind. In his lengthy account of the history of Rome, Robert Hughes is doubly, gloriously, and disgracefully careless.

Most history books contain errors, but Hughes’s account of some three thousand years, from the foundation of Rome to fascism and Fellini, has an extraordinary number. Some, particularly in the later part of the book, are pure errors of virtue. Unless a critic finds pleasure in carping (a satisfaction that can be concealed sometimes by the claim that one is helping the author for his second edition), it is of small moment to note that to describe George Gissing’s By the Ionian Sea (1901) as a ‘long-disregarded novel’ is to disregard the fact it is not a novel at all. Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita(1960), whose photographer, Paparazzo, took his name from Gissing’s travelogue and handed it on to celebrity snappers across the world, receives such exuberant attention in Rome that it hardly matters that Gissing’s work has been ‘disregarded’ (i.e. unread) by Hughes too. This author oozes eloquent passion for Bernini and Caravaggio, and if critics find the odd error in all of that, too bad.

In the first half of the book, however, the carelessness is decisively different. Hughes begins his history long before the Renaissance sculptors, papal architects, and fashionable film-makers whom he evokes so fiercely. To pick a passage almost at random: on the last page of the second chapter Hughes writes about the death of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and how ‘smoothly’ went the transition of power to his successor, described as ‘Livia’s eldest son by him, Tiberius’. If Tiberius had actually been ‘Livia’s son by him’, her son by her second husband, Augustus, the succession might well have gone smoothly (or not); but he was not Livia’s son by Augustus at all. Tiberius was Livia’s son by her first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, a rather remarkable Roman in himself.

Augustus founded a great empire. Tiberius Claudius Nero lost his wife to this most ambitious and successful man of his age, but ended up siring a vast dynasty of imperial potentates: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. An easy and forgivable mistake? Well, quite easy and forgivable, I suppose, unless you are being paid to write a history of Rome. You would also need to have forgotten Robert Graves’sI, Claudiusand all the soap-opera versions. The achievement of Livia’s first husband was the sort that has often very much mattered to Romans. Augustus himself sired only one child, a daughter, a matter also of note to anyone for whom the ancient history of Rome has been a genuine care.

Two pages later, Hughes tells of another death, that of the African king, Jugurtha, ‘of starvation in 105 ce’ – which would be a fine addition to a section on the Emperor Caligula’s prison policy if Jugurtha had not died in 104 bce. Fine again, the author or publisher might say. That is the old bc/ad, bce/ce confusion, easily done; so easily that it is done in the next line, too. Vercingetorix, ‘Caesar’s chief enemy in Gaul’, is executed in ‘46 ce’, ninety years after Caesar himself was killed.

Does Hughes care about gladiatorial shows? Most historians of ancient Rome do, some of them too much. But it is unsettling to read a declaration that ‘a succession of autocrats, starting with Augustus himself and continuing onwards through Pompey and Julius Caesar, treated these games as the greatest imperial show of all’. Onwards? It was Augustus who succeeded Julius Caesar and Pompey. Continuing backwards perhaps? The beginning and end of Augustus’s reign are twin hinges on which Roman histories hang. Here there seems to be no care for either. Hughes posits Nero’s architects planning the Colosseum, the most celebrated Roman building of all, famously built to obliterate Nero’s massive Golden House palace and other unpleasant memories of his reign. If any of his architects were planning this edifice before his death, they were brave men indeed.


Relief from the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius, with an allegorical depiction of the apotheosis of the emperor and his wife, Faustina


On the same page, Hughes discusses the gladiator emperor, Commodus, not an obscure figure today following his depiction in the film Gladiator(2000).In 138 ce, Hughes writes, the deranged, dissolute Commodus was the ‘son and successor’ of the Emperor Hadrian. No, he was not. Commodus’s father, as shown in the film and in all history books, was the philosopher emperor, Marcus Aurelius, whom Commodus succeeded in 180 ce, some forty years later.

Hadrian’s own successor was Antoninus Pius, whom Hughes bizarrely describes as ‘the Christian Antoninus Pius’. The identity of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, is hardly a trivial matter for a writer of a book called Rome. Antoninus Pius, though modest in his Christian persecutions by the standards of some, was properly deified after his death into the pagan pantheon.

Does any of this matter? Individually, the errors may not. To confuse Pompey with his father may be judged merely unhelpful; to write the name of Miltiades, the Athenian aristocrat, instead of Mithradates, a Roman enemy from four hundred years later, only a slip of the aural memory. Hughes quotes ‘the famous Cleopatra epode’, when it is the ode which urges us ‘nunc est bibendum’ and the epode is rarely read at all. Who will care? Few perhaps. But when all is taken together, whatever corrections are made, surely the buyers of this book have been taken for a ride.

The emperor Marcus Aurelius, for example, is an important figure for Hughes (as he is for most historians), not one of those minor characters about whose fatherhood a writer can make a virtuous mistake. His equestrian statue in Rome is one of the city’s great surviving artworks from its ancient past. For Hughes it was ‘the most decisive and revelatory’ sight when he first visited the city in 1959. Hughes cares about art, and this piece of art in particular; in the Epilogue to the book, he rails against the modern ‘vandalism’ that has removed the bronze rider to a ramp in the Capitoline Museum ‘slanting meaninglessly upwards in a way that Michelangelo would never have countenanced’. But an historian has surely to care enough about the man too, enough to avoid awarding his son, even his most disappointing son, to someone else.

A challenge for any historian of early Rome is to help the reader discern what might be true and what is certainly false, what was legendary, what is historical, why the traditional stories were told, retold, and adapted. That task is important, not merely for the antiquarian pedant but because in the oldest history some of the problems of all history are most starkly shown. This was not territory that Hughes was obliged to enter: many historians of Rome have wisely avoided the questions of Romulus and Remus and the flight of Aeneas from Troy.

The city’s early history is a collective memory created by poets and propagandists of the Augustan age, constructed from myths passed through many memories over many centuries. Therefore, to cite ‘the great historian Livy’ for the account of how Aeneas’s descendants were suckled by a she-wolf is a nonsense, even as a careless aside. Livy knew almost nothing about the Rome of eight hundred years before his birth, and what few facts he did know he did not allow to get in the way of a good story. By contrast, what Hughes describes as the ‘legendary date’ of the fall of Troy was, in fact, the first recognisably scientific date, offered in the second century bce and quite close to what we now think is the truth.

The best Roman writers themselves – Cicero in the forefront – had a sophisticated understanding of memory, myth, and history. So did many of the hundreds of historians who have followed. It is no tribute to them – or to the city whose story Hughes writes – to reduce that thought barely to the level of a bad guide book, the sort used and sold by those ‘artistic illiterates’ that in his Epilogue, boldly and wholly without irony, Hughes judges ‘most Italians’ to be.

Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard is Editor of The Times Literary Supplement and the author of On the Spartacus Road, A Spectacular Journey through Ancient Italy (2010).

Published in September 2011 no. 334

Comments (1)

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    Thank you for this insights. I bought this book and started reading it and was intrigued by the first few pages. I will continue to read it with an eye on those mistakes but and quite disappointed.

    Wednesday, 29 March 2017 03:15 posted by Steve Martin

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