Monday, February 08, 2016

Mardi Gras Eve and Eve of the N.H. Primary


'Tis the night before Mardi Gras and I'd love to be in my shotgun apartment near the Garden District off St. Charles again. Such amazing Dionysian times they were in the 70s. How bored I am with the ever more hysterical news, comments, articles, and FB posts about this year-long election process. So much of the same hysteria I heard back when poor Hubert Humphrey ran for president and lost because of the onslaught from the Left and the onslaught from the Right. And here we are talking about "real change" once again, reliving the McGovern dream, the stand by your principles Nader, the idealist whose parents came from Lebanon and taught him Arabic. It isn't possible not to wonder what he must have thought as he watched W. Bush destroy the Middle-East. Nader lived in a fantasy world I think many on the Left still live in. Every time I read or hear the rabid attack they make on Hillary, the more I am inclined to vote for her. Hillary Clinton is not the enemy of humanists and ecologists, of those who believe in civil rights and the rampant destruction of the environment by corporations. Is she as liberal as Bernie, as much fun, as dynamic, as poetic? Hell no. She is pragmatic and serious. I have more faith in her moving the country more to the left than in Bernie's dreams of revolution. But I love them both and want either of them to champion the cause of stopping the insane candidates, the Republicans now in line to ruin the country and the planet. We can only stop someone far, far worse than Nixon or Bush from coming to power if we unite to support the Democrats. We need to do this on the Congressional level as well. After tomorrow (Mardi Gras), take off your mask of outrage, of hysteria, and support calm, sane, determined work to get Democrats elected nationwide. Please.

Friday, February 05, 2016

After-thoughts on the afterlife.



Yesterday's day long tribute to my father was more moving than I expected. There were many people at the Gamble Funeral Home, including my Aunt Sarah, my cousins, my friends, including Ben, John and Maggie, Kathy and Lisa, a sweet gay couple, Daryl and Brian, and even people from the AMBUCS.
The gathering at Kathy's was pleasant and sad simultaneously. It poured rain the whole day. A limo took us to the Beaufort National Cemetery, where soldiers stood at attention in the downpour. We took our places in a covered area, the huge bouquet of flowers from BFA standing in front of us. The soldiers folded the flag in an elaborate ceremony and presented it to Kathy, who sat between Lisa and grand-daughter Maggie, my father's only grand child. I was pleased she had come.
Then the soldiers gathered to fire guns in salute and another soldier played the farewell bugle. It was all very moving and we were all in tears.





The ceremony transcended the particular time and place, though the rain made it especially touching. We all knew it was just such a ceremony and meaning my father, himself, would want and be moved by. This is what he, Lt. Col. Miller stood for and believed in. He thought of himself as a patriot and a good citizen. He thought of himself, also, as a good father and husband, whether he achieved that in our eyes, for the moment, was unimportant. We honored him for what he believed in; that is what I found so moving.



For me, the ceremony was one of completion. In my mind he rose out of the skeletal frame and feeble mind of the past decade to become the whole man I knew as a child and young adult. I may know his failings, but yesterday I also knew what was good in him and recalled how proud I once was of him. I recalled the joy he felt in his office, of owning Savannah's oldest standing house. I recalled his love of art, his photography, the gallery he once had and which gave him joy. The joy he took in helping Kathy promote her own art for decades; all the shows and galleries, beginning with his office--




Christian-Camphor House



We didn't have much in common, my father and I, except our love of art, however different our viewpoints; our love of chess and of bowling; we shared his love of Stravinsky and Schopenhauer, and his love of Savannah. Interestingly enough, Dad also loved Marilyn Monroe both as an artistic subject of art and for her personality and looks. 

He shared this with the Gay Community, of course, and he was also supportive of gay relationships, especially Darryl's and mine. 
Kathy reminded us of his love of Paris, too, of his climbing out of the spires of Notre Dame for yet another take on the gargoyles.

Dad will live on in our memories. That is the way of things. With time the good ones will dominate if not cancel the not-so-good ones. Add to those the heartening glimpses of others at the service who shared memories of him. Farewell, Lt. Col. Jack Miller, husband, father, grandfather, brother, attorney, artist, art lover, and good citizen.





Dad with John and me


With his grand-daughter Maggie




With Love,
Jack




Saturday, January 30, 2016

Dad-- a Tribute



My father died yesterday.What I wrote for his birthday last month (below)
 remains accurate. The official Obituary skims his life, leaving out what is most real. Of course I have fond memories, mostly of his life before 1970 when I graduated from college and Dad moved on to his second wife. As she once said, "Marriage is the triumph of habit over hate." Quite forgotten, it seems, are their early days together, he turning his historic law office and house into an art gallery, going to art shows, making her conversion from English teacher to artist complete. Now all that is left for his second wife is the ample Air Force retirement check she will have the rest of her life.

Going to his final funeral service and to the military salute that will  honor him means little to me. I think my father dies with only one person truly loving him and missing him, my good brother, John. For me, there are memories of travels together when I was a child, of playing chess, or bowling, of some letters we wrote, some of which I still have, while I was in college, graduate school, and living in the carriage house attached to his office. We had some good times; but he remained a mystery to me. His childhood as the son of a Jewish father, that he found out was not his biological father, his ambiguous religious feelings, his affairs and love life, his politics and love of the military remain unknown. He was always secretive and capable of telling lies, sometimes based on his prudishness. I do recall fondly his love of Stravinsky and his reading of Schopenhauer. It is sad how much he loved, and was so little loved in return.


94 -- But Not Counting (Dec. 10, 2015)


"To sleep, perchance to dream"





end of summer smile
shades made for the afterlife
fists pep pop tabletop


--Haiku Cola



Today is my father's 94th Birthday.



To celebrate in Savannah my brother is taking Dad for ice cream and a look at the nearby lake. Dad has no idea it is his birthday. My brother goes over each Saturday to persuade him to leave the bed and go for an afternoon outing that usually involves fast food ice cream.


It would be nice to say his life is comfortable. It would be nice to say he is well cared for. After all, has he not lived to the very ripe age of 94? Without home care. Without a bath or shower. Without food except for nutritious "shakes." Or, as my brother reports, gobbling up everything on his plate for Thanksgiving when there was real food to eat. Like Rip Van Winkle, he spends long hours in slumber; only he will not awake to a wondrous future.

Not that I have room to complain about his being ignored and left uncared for.  He and I have no relationship any longer to speak of. I see him on Saturdays on my I-Pad and he tells me to shave. Today, he was rather lively, saying he had peach ice cream and repeatedly surprised to hear it's his birthday.



Dad's quips include still the desire to chase after girls. Sometimes he sings for the I-pad.
The military man, the retired colonel is gone. So too the Savannah lawyer. He still mentions Kathy's name with love and devotion. But much as we might think, or wish, he does not see the world through rose colored glasses. He is a shade wearing shades. He has become the archetype of countless aged souls who are left to fade away, those around him daily expecting him to die, leaving him seldom washed (unless he can manage to shower himself), without medicine of any kind to help him, or anyone to encourage some minutes of exercise.



Yes, I feel sad for the old man I long, long ago played chess with. He is gone. And yet, he lives. How I love the irony of the photo of him and his umbrella with Munch's Scream


Dad has been most often the stoic, screaming only in irrational anger, never-- that I recall-- in pain or anguish. His smile has always included his defiance.




Obituaries


Lt Col JACK EVERETT MILLER, U. S. AIR FORCE (RET.)

Lt Col Jack Everett Miller, U. S. Air Force (Ret.), 94, of Savannah, Georgia and husband of Kathryn “Kathy” Woodard Garriss Miller, died peacefully Friday afternoon, January 29, 2016, at St. Joseph’s Hospital.miller - jack (150 x 207)
Colonel Miller served as an Attorney-at-Law for over 40 years in Savannah, being a member of several local law firms before establishing his own firm on East Oglethorpe Avenue. He also served as Judge Advocate in his capacity as a member of the Air Force Reserve. Colonel Miller rose through the ranks from non-commissioned officer to Lieutenant Colonel in his decades of service to the military, including duties during the Korean War. As a businessman, Colonel Miller was a prominent member and chapter president of the American Business Club, now simply known as the AMBUCS, a charitable organization which helps children with disabilities. During the 90’s, after retiring as an attorney, Colonel Miller dedicated his time and energy to photography, and exhibiting his work in his own gallery, The New Wave Gallery, at City Market. He also assisted his wife, Kathy Miller, at Signature Gallery at City Market. When time allowed, he enjoyed fishing in the waters around Savannah, bowling with the AMBUCS League, and relaxing at home with his family.
Colonel Miller is survived by his wife, Kathy Miller; two sons, Jack Miller, Jr. and John Miller; a son-in-law, Darryl Gossett; his step-daughter, Lisa Garriss; his beloved grand-daughter, Margaret V. Miller; his dear sister, Sarah Deich; his brother-in-law, Henry Woodard, and several nieces and nephews.
The funeral service will be held at 10 o’clock Thursday morning in the chapel of Gamble Funeral Service. Interment, with full military honors, will be at 2 o’clock Thursday afternoon in Beaufort National Cemetery.
Remembrances: The Humane Society for Greater Savannah – 7215 Sallie Mood Drive, Savannah, Georgia 31406-3922.

Online Condolences

  1. BethAline Smith
    My sincere condolences to Kathy Miller and the entire family. Mr. Miller was a fine, thoughtful, and creative man. I have happy memories of him and I pray for your peace as you grieve him.
  2. Amy Barnes
    Jack,
    I am so sorry to hear of your father’s passing. You are in my thoughts and prayers.
    Amy Barnes
  3. William Rhode
    Kathy,
    You have my sincere condolences on the passing of Jack, he was a great man. I was honored to have known him. If I can help you in this difficult time, please let me know.
    Bill
  4. Deborah Mueller
    Kathy, so very sorry to learn of Jack’s death, my condolences to you and your family. He was a good man and I feel lucky to have known him.
  5. Jan Bedol
    Jack,
    I was so interested to read about your father’s life. What an amazing person! I am keeping you and your family in my prayers.
    Fondly,
    Jan
  6. Daryl & Brian
    It was a great pleasure meeting Jack and getting to know him. We shall miss him. Our thoughts go out to you Kathy, and the whole family.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sunday-- Here Comes the Sun



Sunday and the sun is back in full swing, following last night's brilliant moon. The snow has come and gone except for a white splotch here and there in the ivy. Change is the way of things; might as well flow. My father gazes from his skeleton at my brother's I-Pad, "Jackie is on the phone?" he parrots John. He looks at my face not really getting any of it. What, I wonder keeps him going at 94, confined to the hospital or the rehab center, sometimes in fury, sometimes quietly eating the ice cream my brother patiently spoons him. Where, you may well ask, is my compassion?
The ubiquitous absurdity of life is what overwhelms me. We laugh at it over and over-- the nonsense pouring forth from Sarah Palin, the absurdity, way more serious, of imagining a President Trump. The absurdity of capitalism making an undeserving few rich and powerful while millions settle for so little, or fail to protest their degradation. The absurdity of meaningless work, like rolling the boulder up the mountain, only to see it roll back to the bottom. Bernie's dream of social democracy and the absurdity of its dismissal by millions as being tyranny of some sort.
I refuse to succumb to the absurdity, like the belief in a benevolent god or gods, or absurd trinity, or other such wishful thinking. Religions lead too often to the absurdity of killing those who don't believe, or to subjugating whole sectors of humanity. Freud was so brilliant in seeing such belief rooted in the trust of a child in his/her father, no matter the delusion, no matter the evil that father might perpetrate.
I can neither beat the absurd nor join it. So what is left? To climb up to the peak of the mountain without the boulder. Take a long look at the view, simultaneously beautiful and hideous, the sublime and the slime.
I recall the final verse of "Dover Beach," but wonder to whom or to what to be true. Friendship, perhaps, or nature in some pantheistic way: or is that, too, just being absurd? Of course there is always art, entertainment, novels, hedonistic pleasures, simple and not so simple, ice cream, hot chocolate, and best of all, music... 



Nina Simone Here Comes The Sun (listen)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xr8ol8ufSRg




Thursday, January 14, 2016

Another Year, 2016


Holiday in Savannah

(click the photos)

Winter Solstice, Christmas, New Years... anything to keep us from admitting the monotony of the repetition of short days and long nights. The holidays have become a self-fulfilling prophecy since each year the accumulating parties, festivities, travels, presents, and revelations of holidays past flood our memories. So we do our best to make something memorable happen again. We celebrate ridiculous gods and customs, dance around whatever our various embodiments of Stonehenge happen to be. For all that, the long nights may still hold dark thoughts, depression, the realization that our world, general and particular, is no paradise.
The demise of 2015 was no different. Facebook now holds many of the details of those days in my own and friends' lives. So let me here give a glimpse of the roller-coaster ride from mid-December to now. It was a good time to do some contemplation.
Around the Solstice, Will and I drove to Nashville by way of Starr's. Getting high on the porch and experiencing the bonding of the three of us rocked. Will and I engaged in our usual soul searching. Starr was a delight, as always. The trip from the Mountain to Nashville was all up and down. High up on the campus of Sewanee, we enjoyed the ambiance of that elevated realm of learning and intellect, as well as an ironic embrace of tradition in a very liberal arts world. I loved sharing the University and reminiscing of those extreme times circa 1968-70.

Sewanee

The trip to Nashville to see some bands was, for me, a tedious waste of time and energy. I don't think it was much better for Will who had to drive us all the way back to Atlanta from midnight until 4 AM. Tired, we were no longer engaged in enchanting dialog.





The East Room





For Christmas itself, Darryl and I spent a few days on another mountain at Amicalola Falls. We did have some good food in the Lodge there; however, the fog and the pouring rain and thunder obscured the scenery.  We did manage the short hike to the top of the roaring waterfall itself, plunging precipitously into the abyss created by the dense fog.


Amicalola Falls and Fog





Then came Savannah. My father fell and broke his hip on Christmas eve and ruined Kathy's plans for Xmas dinner the next day. After a successful operation to repair the fracture, Dad spend days in the hospital and went to a rehab/nursing home for "recovery" for the next 100 days. John and I spent several evenings with him in the hospital and I convinced the nurse to feed him ice-cream each night since he pushed away his dinner.

John and I managed to spend one warm, sunny day at Tybee walking on the beach around the pier and going for shrimp at Coco's Sunset Grill where, oddly, I managed to fracture a tooth. Dealing with the tooth and a new $1400. crown took up my first week of the New Year when Darryl and I returned to Druid Hills. I have to add that The Savannah Bed and Breakfast Inn disappointed us with a small, if pleasant, room  where we were bombarded every day there with construction on the terraces and patios. Still, I was able to visit there at different times with Buz, Ben, and Effie.

New Years's Eve, Darryl and I wandered over to neighbor Gerry's for the midnight celebration, fireworks, and champagne. The party set the perfect mood for taking on yet another year, one that will bring the madness of another presidential election.




Will (the lion) and Starr
Starr's Porch 


Will and Sewanee








Johnny Harris Xmas 2015



 Home Sweet Home 2016

Jack






Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Winter Kept Us Warm


With this Winters 70+  temperatures, 

T. S. Eliot's line from The Waste Land is literally true.

Five years ago I wrote the following:

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Solstice Approaches






Another winter solstice arrives in ten days, this time with a total lunar eclipse. Outside, beyond the screen porch, the skeletons of oaks reach up to a sky pale as death. It is impossible not to think of mortality on such a day. 

It is noon, Darryl is still asleep upstairs, and I have watched a Swedish film about the troubled life a a woman photographer from World War 1 through the Twenties. Art arises out of  hard life experiences. No doubt, as I look around rooms of art, the huge Larry Connatser painting in front of me that hung on my mother's wall for decades, two people conversing in a cubist world of turbulence; The Picasso lithograph of two figures confronting one another with masks; the Huichol jaguar with a peyote button on its forehead; even the sculpted Buddha protected by a cobra. Art penetrates into the heart of life.

What better time to make merry, to decorate evergreen trees, to drink eggnog, and believe in sweet baby gods. The moon will turn blood red this Solstice as the dark winter caresses the Northern Hemisphere. Thus goes the cycle of death and rebirth. The New Year follows with dancing and champagne.
May your holidays be sacred, may they give birth to the angels of your highest selves. 

Peace,

Jameson



Thursday, December 10, 2015

94 -- But Not Counting


"To sleep, perchance to dream"





end of summer smile
shades made for the afterlife
fists pep pop tabletop


--Haiku Cola



Today is my father's 94th Birthday.



To celebrate in Savannah my brother is taking Dad for ice cream and a look at the nearby lake. Dad has no idea it is his birthday. My brother goes over each Saturday to persuade him to leave the bed and go for an afternoon outing that usually involves fast food ice cream.


It would be nice to say his life is comfortable. It would be nice to say he is well cared for. After all, has he not lived to the very ripe age of 94? Without home care. Without a bath or shower. Without food except for nutritious "shakes." Or, as my brother reports, gobbling up everything on his plate for Thanksgiving when there was real food to eat. Like Rip Van Winkle, he spends long hours in slumber; only he will not awake to a wondrous future.

Not that I have room to complain about his being ignored and left uncared for.  He and I have no relationship any longer to speak of. I see him on Saturdays on my I-Pad and he tells me to shave. Today, he was rather lively, saying he had peach ice cream and repeatedly surprised to hear it's his birthday.



Dad's quips include still the desire to chase after girls. Sometimes he sings for the I-pad.
The military man, the retired colonel is gone. So too the Savannah lawyer. He still mentions Kathy's name with love and devotion. But much as we might think, or wish, he does not see the world through rose colored glasses. He is a shade wearing shades. He has become the archetype of countless aged souls who are left to fade away, those around him daily expecting him to die, leaving him seldom washed (unless he can manage to shower himself), without medicine of any kind to help him, or anyone to encourage some minutes of exercise.



Yes, I feel sad for the old man I long, long ago played chess with. He is gone. And yet, he lives. How I love the irony of the photo of him and his umbrella with Munch's Scream

Dad has been most often the stoic, screaming only in irrational anger, never-- that I recall-- in pain or anguish. His smile has always included his defiance.





Monday, December 07, 2015

Death and Eroticism



We learn about guns early on.
Some learn about hate at the same time.
Shall I name those in my life who have died by guns
or by violence?
"Those not busy being born are busy dying."


Thanatos and Eros dominate our lives. Take TV. Sunday, I watched The Affair, Homeland, and The Leftovers. All three plunge into death, sex, and their inextricable connection.Smashing walls in desperation or despair over sex and/or death is found often, as in The Leftovers or in the season finale of Doctor Who, consumed with death-- both pictured here.
Oh, it goes beyond mere TV shows. What Shakespeare play or sonnet has not dwelled substantially on death and sex? What explains the mass killings of terrorists more than their obsession with unconventional or non-conformist sex, the freedom of women, and death to infidels? Could it be that Freud was correct in his assessment of our impotence before these urges? Wasn't Marx correct in his decrying the danger of religion, it's fervor, its obsession with death, its life-denying dictates upon sexuality, its violence ? Its use by those in power to stay there ? We cannot, it appears, wall out our wayward urges or keep away the head-hunting, murderous hordes of lost souls.





And I haven't even mentioned American Horror Story





This Girl in the Wall  Mr. March basically just strings this girl up in a wall to die. 






POPSUGAR.COM|BY MAGGIE PEHANICK


You've Got to be Taught How to Hate 



With Love,
Jack




Thursday, December 03, 2015

Ancient Rome, Mary Beard...

Three new books on Ancient Rome--

From the NYRB:


Inside the Emperors’ Clothes

Néron en Occident: Une figure de l’histoire

by Donatien Grau
Paris: Gallimard, 407 pp., €32.00
Emperor Nero; painting by Abraham Janssens, 1618
Jagdschloss Grunewald, Berlin/bpk/Art Resource
Emperor Nero; painting by Abraham Janssens, 1618
The empire of ancient Rome spanned the entire Mediterranean world. It included two of the world’s great monotheist religions, Judaism and Christianity, and it provided the environment for the creation of a third, Islam. Historians from antiquity to the present have struggled to comprehend how a small Italian town grew from modest beginnings into a republic and then, after a succession of civil wars, into a great empire. Edward Gibbon was not the only one to recognize that the market for Roman history was huge. It still is, not least because of its colorful and larger-than-life rulers but above all because it embraced so many different and yet interconnected peoples. From the Atlantic to the Euphrates, from the Rhine and the Danube to the edge of the Sahara, Rome transformed and refashioned the cultures it absorbed, and we live today with the aftermath of its conquests.
‘Study for the Head of Julius Caesar’; drawing by Andrea del Sarto, circa 1520. It is on view in the exhibition at the Frick Collection reviewed by Ingrid Rowland on page 22 of this issue.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
‘Study for the Head of Julius Caesar’; drawing by Andrea del Sarto, circa 1520. It is on view in the exhibition at the Frick Collection reviewed by Ingrid Rowland on page 22 of this issue.
Rome’s achievement was as paradoxical as it was immense. It seems to have happened without any design or master plan. Gibbon was the first to see that this global transformation could be explained neither by listing dates and sources nor by appealing to divine intervention. The antiquarians who preceded Gibbon not only failed to explain Rome’s rise but failed to perceive, as he conspicuously did, that Roman history had all the ingredients for a great work of literature. Gibbon set the gold standard for literary history, which not even Johann Gustav Droysen on Alexander the Great or Francis Parkman on France and England in America could match. His success was arguably due as much to his great theme as to his tireless industry in composing his work. The three books under review prove that the appetite for Roman history continues unabated to this day.
Anglophone readers have every reason to rejoice that Gibbon, the first and greatest of modern Roman historians, wrote in their language. Theodor Mommsen, who won the Nobel Prize for writing about ancient Rome in German, knew perfectly well that he was no Gibbon. He steadfastly refused to bring his Roman history into the imperial period, where he would have had to compete with his admired eighteenth-century English predecessor. Apart from Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution of 1939, which distilled the irony and insight of Tacitus’s Latin into lapidary English prose, no histories of Rome in English have achieved Gibbon’s unique combination of deep scholarship and literary style.
Yet by an astonishing coincidence two contemporary English authors who write often and well about ancient Rome, Mary Beard and Tom Holland, have simultaneously produced readable histories of Rome. It would be patronizing and wrong to speak of their work as popularization, but there can be little doubt that both writers are deservedly popular. Between them they have done more to promote classical studies than all the professors who try to reach thousands through the electronic programs currently known as massive open online courses (MOOCs).
The new books by Beard and Holland overlap most closely in their treatment of the end of the Roman Republic and the first century of the empire, but they also look backward as far as Romulus and Remus. Both show the experience of the two writers in communicating with a general audience by beginning in the middle of the narrative, to engage the reader’s attention, and then circling back to fill in what came before. Beard starts with Cicero’s exposure in 63 BC of the conspiracy of Catiline, and Holland starts in 40 AD with Caligula sitting on a beach on the coast of France looking out toward Britain. These opening pages draw the reader inexorably into the complex web that the authors are spinning.
But the books could not be more different. Beard expressly calls SPQR “a history of ancient Rome,” and her opening sentence bluntly asserts, “Ancient Rome is important.” Her title is the standard ancient abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, “the Senate and People of Rome,” and as she points out, it still adorns manhole covers and rubbish bins in Rome today. No one could doubt that what she has written has contemporary relevance. Her history evokes a past that visibly impinges upon the present, as modern travelers in Europe, the Balkans, Anatolia, North Africa, and the Near East are constantly made aware.
By the time Beard has finished, she has explored not only archaic, republican, and imperial Rome, but the eastern and western provinces over which it eventually won control. She deploys an immense range of ancient sources, in both Greek and Latin, and an equally wide range of material objects, from pots and coins to inscriptions, sculptures, reliefs, and temples. She moves with ease and mastery through archaeology, numismatics, and philology, as well as a mass of written documents on stone and papyrus.
Not unreasonably Beard brings her history to a close with the conferral of Roman citizenship by the emperor Caracalla in 212 AD upon virtually everyone who lived within the confines of the Roman Empire. What historians have traditionally called the Crisis of the Third Century was just about to begin. This brought the devastating replacement of the Parthians—an Iranian empire that had, since the first century BC, fought occasionally with the Romans—by the Sassanian Persians, who would soon invade Syria. The crisis also included barbarian invasions from the north and a great plague. The conversion of Constantine to Christianity was still a century away. Beard could not have covered those tumultuous times without writing another large volume, but she rightly looks ahead to Constantine just as she looks back to Romulus.
Holland’s book is not like this. His title, Dynasty, tells us at once, with the aid of a subtitle, The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, that this is a story rather than a work of history. It is a novel about historical events and personalities that will be familiar to most readers from Robert Graves, but it is not fiction. It reproduces, with marmoreal grandeur, what Holland has learned directly from ancient sources, above all Tacitus and Suetonius, about the court intrigues, sexual scandals, and monstrous personalities that dominated the Julio-Claudian age—the period of the first five Roman emperors—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The frightful eccentricities of the last of the Julio-Claudians included murdering his mother and presiding over a vast conflagration at Rome that has been thought to have wiped out many of the Christians in the city.
Holland’s novelistic approach enhances a story that he has not invented. This means that his account is gripping and occasionally eloquent, but sometimes the larger historical setting vanishes as he concentrates on vivid personalities at the expense of the vast empire within which all the domestic horrors were taking place. The Gibbonian miracle had been the felicitous union, in a single writer, of a thoughtful historian and a memorable narrator, but this was possible because Gibbon brought an uncommonly large vision to his scholarly and literary gifts. He famously called his work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whereas Holland seems to like single-word titles—Dynasty for the new one on the Julio-Claudians and Rubicon for an earlier one on Julius Caesar. This seems to be part of a current fashion, to judge from the work of another expert writer on Rome in a novelistic style, Robert Harris, who shows a similar predilection for single-word titles: ImperiumConspirata, and now his forthcomingDictator.1
By contrast, in SPQR—not a single word, of course, though admirably concise—Beard spreads out the uncertainties and inconsistencies that every historian must face in sorting out what really happened in the past. She has no hesitation in breaking the continuity of her account by jumping backward and forward to illuminate her argument and by wandering freely across the entire Mediterranean world to provide glimpses of provincial life. She is not telling a story.
Near the end of her book, in a close-up for which she draws on personal knowledge of the site, she suddenly transports her reader to the monuments and history of the city of Aphrodisias in modern Turkey—a city named for the goddess of love that, in the Christian empire, would become Stauropolis, “the city of the cross.” Splicing of this kind is indispensable in writing good history, and Beard gives her readers a master class in historical analysis, with due attention to the reliability of sources, the corruption of traditions, politically motivated myth-making, and the mysterious process by which perceptions of the past determine the course of subsequent events.
Beard begins simply enough by declaring that her account of the Senate and people of Rome will begin in the year 63 BC, the year of Catiline’s great conspiracy to overthrow the Roman Republic dominated by Julius Caesar, a plot that Cicero prided himself on exposing. She even asserts, “Roman history, as we know it, started here.” Why this should be is not at all obvious to me. Although 63 is not a bad place to start an account of the collapse of the Roman Republic, it must be said that a thoughtful eyewitness, Asinius Pollio, who wrote an influential, though now lost, account of the end of the republic, opted to begin in 60, when Pompey and Caesar became allies. This was famously the year with which the great modern historian of Rome, Ronald Syme, began his classic history, The Roman Revolution, and it was Pollio’s example that inspired him to do so.
By starting with 63, instead of 60, Beard must have known that she was repudiating the date that Syme and Pollio had adopted. She does not address this issue, but unexpectedly in the middle of her book she gives a reference to the first poem in Book Two of Horace’s Odes, where the year 60 is named as the launchpad of civil war. It was precisely in this poem that Horace celebrated the audacity of Asinius Pollio in writing a history about inflammatory events that were so recent the embers were still glowing.
To my eyes Pollio rightly marked the beginning of the civil war that brought down the Roman Republic, and it would have made more sense to start here. But even had Beard begun with this date, she would still have had to provide background from centuries before in order to give her readers the necessary perspective to understand what was going on. Beard is an experienced scholar, teacher, and communicator, and she enriches her history by preventing it from becoming a more or less chronological register of events. Her many years in front of students, colleagues, and television cameras have accustomed her to convey a wealth of information and ideas in a chatty style that no one should mistake for a lack of substance, erudition, or insight.
Beard’s relatively brief account of the Julio-Claudians is more than supplemented by the detailed narrative that Holland has provided in Dynasty. His story, though essentially centered upon Rome and its court, provides many lubricious details for which Beard has no space. Apart from the outrageous conduct of Caligula, whom professional historians scrupulously call Gaius, it is Nero who dominates the final years of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that descended from Augustus. This paranoid emperor, who loved to act and sing on stage, felt himself at heart more a Greek than a Roman, and he proceeded relentlessly, after a few tranquil years at the start, to commit crime and engage in depraved acts until his suicide in 68. Yet his reign left its mark through the magnificent Latin literature of his own time and subsequently in the retrospective literature of Western Europe down to the present.
In a wide-ranging book that is more about the perception of Nero after his death than the character of the man in his lifetime, a talented French writer, Donatien Grau, interrogates the sources for the emperor’s reign not only from Nero’s own time but from many centuries after. His book begins, as it should, with a review of the Latin masterpieces that Neronian writers, such as Seneca the philosopher, Petronius the novelist (author of the Satyricon), and Lucan the epic poet (author of the Pharsalia), have left behind. They were writing in the very years when Nero presented himself with increasing flamboyance as a Hellene, performing on stage and competing in the Olympic games.
Grau subtly creates an illuminating counterpoint between the undoubted achievements of Neronian culture and the delusions of the emperor himself. In this respect he can offer interpretations that neither Beard nor Holland attempts to provide, and he does so with an engagingly Gallic rhetoric that serves to highlight the differences between the ways Roman history is practiced on the two sides of the Channel. Grau, for example, questions Syme’s total confidence in the veracity of Tacitus by observing that in Roman studies reactions to ancient claims of accuracy and good faith have been “absolutely contradictory.”
What emerges above all from a comparison of the Nero of Beard, Holland, and Grau is that none of them really tries to get at Nero himself, beyond the caricature and criminality that appear so often in the ancient sources. Since we actually possess several letters from Nero and one long speech, it might have been useful to consider what the man reveals in lines that he may have composed himself.
We know from Tacitus that Seneca sometimes served as a ghostwriter for Nero’s speeches, and he may also have served in that capacity for letters and administrative communications. But a major speech at Corinth, coming after Seneca’s suicide, which was demanded by Nero, and composed in pretentiously florid Greek, seems obviously to transmit the emperor’s authentic voice across two millennia. Its discovery in modern times on an inscription from Akraiphia in Boeotia, north of Athens, was first made known in 1888, as Grau is aware, by the great French epigraphist Maurice Holleaux, who immediately recognized the highly personal tone of the emperor’s Greek: “le style précieux et sentimental à faux, l’emphase egoïste [the precious and falsely sentimental style, the emphatic egotism].”
Eighteen lines of text present Nero in 67 AD at Corinth, at the time of the Olympic competition nearby, when the emperor granted freedom to Greece, or rather, as it was then known, the province of Achaea. Nero was obviously very pleased with what he was doing, and his training in a style of Greek that was often described as Asian served him well. Nero’s generosity had no future, because only a few years later the emperor Vespasian revoked Nero’s gift and restored the Greeks to their prior provincial status. But the speech itself furnishes a unique glimpse into a brief moment of triumph and self-satisfaction near the pathetic end of a monarch who reportedly declared as he was dying, “What an artist dies in me!” Here is Nero to his beloved Hellenes:
For you, men of Greece, it is an unexpected gift which, even though nothing from my generous nature is unhoped-for, I grant to you—such a great gift that you would have been incapable of requesting it. All Greeks inhabiting Achaea and what is now known as the Peloponnesus, receive freedom with no taxation—something which none of you ever possessed in your most fortunate of times, for you were subject to others or to yourselves. Would that Greece were still at its peak as I grant you this gift, in order that more people might enjoy this favor of mine. For this reason I blame Time for exhausting prematurely the size of my favor. But even now it is not out of pity for you but out of goodwill that I bestow this benefaction, and I give it in exchange to your gods whose forethought for me on land and sea I have always experienced, because they granted me the opportunity of conferring such benefits. Other leaders have liberated cities, only Nero a province.
This glimpse into the emperor’s unbridled megalomania is far more precious than any attempt to deduce his character from the ancient authors who wrote about him. It is not part of later reportage or a novelistic invention, as Holland clearly recognized when he chose to cite a brief excerpt from it in his account of Nero’s Greek tour. It is a raw historical document, almost without parallel. Only the surviving text of a rambling speech by the emperor Claudius to the Senate is comparable in its immediacy, but not in its extravagant language. What Gibbon would have done with Nero’s speech if it had been known to him is hard to imagine, because in this case reality itself goes far beyond any irony.
It is of course natural to wonder what the Greeks themselves might have made of this imperial flattery of their gods and their culture through the medium of their own language at its most artificial. But the sober Plutarch, writing a decade or two after Nero’s great gesture, leaves us in no doubt that, however ridiculous Nero may have appeared at Corinth, the Greeks genuinely appreciated him as an emperor who admired their ancient traditions. Plutarch declared that for all Nero’s crimes the Hellenic peoples owed him some measure of gratitude for his goodwill toward them, and a century later Philostratus, the biographer of the legendary miracle-worker Apollonius of Tyana, said that Nero showed unusual wisdom in freeing the Greeks.
Mary Beard observes that after Nero’s death several pretenders to the imperial throne arose in the eastern Mediterranean world by claiming to be the still-living Nero. Beard astutely remarks of these so-called “false Neros” that their deception “suggests that in some areas of the Roman world Nero was fondly remembered: no one seeks power by pretending to be an emperor universally hated.” This was a strange fate for the last of the Julio-Claudians, whose memory was so detested generally that his name was systematically gouged out in most of the inscriptions in which it appeared.
Over the centuries after Nero’s death the greatest example of his megalomania undoubtedly remained the fire at Rome in 64, in which, according to Tacitus, Christians were crucified and burned alive. The authority of Tacitus has conferred upon this horror a degree of credibility that has even led historians to assume that the fiery deaths of Christians at Rome were but part of a more general policy of persecution launched by Nero. Although few now believe that the emperor promulgated some kind of institutumagainst the Christians, most historians, including Beard, Holland, Grau, and myself, still believe that Christians died, as Tacitus says they did, in the fire of 64.
But even this apparently solid testimony for early Christian persecution has now been forcefully challenged. Our view of Neronian Rome and early Christianity would be dramatically altered if the crucified and flaming Christians in 64 turned out to be mythical, as the Princeton historian Brent Shaw now claims they are. His recent and carefully reasoned article in support of this view rests essentially upon a conviction that it would be anachronistic to refer to Christians in 64, since he questions whether they were then identified as such. Therefore he believes that Tacitus’s version of the fire derives from a fiction, Christian or otherwise, that was devised and disseminated at some point between 64 and the time when he was writing, more than five decades later.2
Shaw’s argument is well made and persuasive at many points, but I still find it hard to believe that there were no Christians in Neronian Rome, when, at least according to the Acts of the Apostles, they were already known under that name at Antioch in the 60s. Suetonius, who was a contemporary of Tacitus and, like him, more than half a century removed from the events he was writing about, even believed that the name of Christ, whom he calls Chrestus, was known at Rome in the 40s when Claudius expelled the Jews from the city. But this may be no more than a vestige of reports that Jesus’s first followers were Jews. Nevertheless it is both important and humbling to recognize that the history with which we have all grown up can change in the twinkling of an eye when a scholar as acute and deeply read as Shaw detects cracks in an edifice we thought we knew well.
Beard is absolutely correct in her opening manifesto that Roman history is important. The world she evokes, through its material culture as much as its textual sources, is a world in which we are, as Grau insists, deeply rooted. Holland conveys its excitement and its fascination in a way that no scholarly tinkering with details can possibly diminish. All three books testify to the enduring appeal of Roman history, but in different ways. Gibbon’s theme for his great work remains as indestructible, varied, instructive, and relevant as it was in the eighteenth century. Yet when it is addressed anew, in the light of discoveries that constantly emerge from every corner of Rome’s ancient empire, Roman history itself subtly changes. That in turn means that all of us who read it and write it change too.