Tiberius - Allan Massie

Allan Massie
ISBN: 0340560053 (Amazon link)

I enjoyed Augustus hugely when I read it last July, and was intrigued by the idea of Massie writing a sequel about Tiberius, one of the more notorious Roman emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Unlike Augustus, Tiberius has been reviled throughout history for both his personal life, and for his poor leadership of the empire. (Personally, I've always found it surprising that he isn't more widely known as being on the throne - despicable as that idea would have been to a Roman republican - when Christ was crucified.)

As with Augustus, Massie wraps the text proper in a meta-fictional Introduction and Postscript in which he purports to be translating real historical memoirs, obtained from a Mysterious Stranger. In this Introduction he is able to lay out some of the games he intends to play, and to acknowledge some of the apocryphal sources he has used. To be blunt, I don't know that these added much to proceedings; though I didn't mind their presence I felt as though I'd missed something as I didn't really appreciate how the postscript in particular related to the main text.

The historical facts surrounding Tiberius reign are well known, and if you're not familiar with particularly colourful and vile period in history, shame on you for missing so much good reading! A word of caution for those of you new to the period - the Roman nobility set great store by names, and rejoiced in re-using the names of famous ancestors. Remember also that many patricians gained extra names during their lifetimes to mark achievement (eg Germanicus, Africanus or Maximus), or even changed to using entirely new names when adopted into another family. As a result of all this, even in fictional reading it requires serious concentration to keep Roman names straight. Authors like Massie aren't providing a list of characters in the front matter because that's what one traditionally does in 'good' books, they are doing so because it's really useful!

What Massie tries to do for Tiberius is brave; he attempts to produce a sympathetic account of his life, something which doesn't so much apologise for him, as contrast how things could have been stripped of later propagandising by his enemies, and Tactitus in particular. What emerges is the personal memories of a troubled man, a staunch republican who finds himself unwillingly at the head of an Empire, surrounded by enemies on all sides, and unsure even of himself. His notorious appetites are only referring to in passing, with the sense that he is repulsed by them and tries always to repress that side of his nature, being openly disgusted with the same vices in his successors like Caligula. He admits to several relationships, but all are painted as willing and even loving. Near the end of the book, when he has retired to Capri in search of peace, he strikes a deal with a genus loci who promises him "beauty, peace and oblivion" in return for the ruination of his name, "You will be denounced as a monster, a murderer, a brute and satyr, a deified beast..."

What is particularly impressive is that Massie manages to pull off his trick admirably, without undue distortion of the core facts; in this novel Tiberius appears to have acted rationally and with restraint throughout his unhappy life. His personal relationships are of the most poisonous kind, and he almost appears as the helpless victim, at the mercy of the scheming relations, his confidant Sejanus and the Roman mob. A remarkable achievement, Tiberius is narrated in an understated and intimate voice, confiding in beautifully written and very clear prose the life of an unhappy man.

I particularly enjoyed the opening pages, Massie is very skilled at miniature character sketches, wasting no time in laying out the boundaries of character:
"That I relish dryness is not strange; I have campaigned too many years in the rains of the Rhine and Danube valleys. I have marched miles, ankle-deep, through mud, and slept in tents soaked through by morning. Yet my relish for what is dry is of another nature: I detest sentiment or displays of feeling; I detest acting. I detest self-indulgence, and that emotion in which one eye does not weep but observes the effect of tear on those who watch.

I take pleasure in language which is precise, hard and cruel."

Massie's Augustus and Tiberius are the only novels I've read which rival Grave's I, Claudius and Vidal's Julian, which were the two novels which originally got me interested in the period. Highly recommended.

Posted: Sun - January 4, 2004 at 12:58 AM