How To Be A Bad Emperor: An Interview With Author And Professor Josiah Osgood

There were not many good emperors in Rome. There have not been many good kings since. In fact, there haven’t been many good leaders ever—there is something about power that seems to bring out the worst in people. All one has to do is read Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars to see this played out. Josiah Osgood, professor of Classics at Georgetown University recently translated an edition of Suetonius, entitled How To Be A Bad Emperor which looks at some of the worst Roman Emperors. In our interview with Josiah below, he explains more about what power does to people, what leaders today can learn from the fall of the Roman Republic, why Stoicism thrives amid trying times, and much more. Please enjoy our interview with Josiah Osgood and check out his latest book, How To Be A Bad Emperor!

Before we get into it, can you tell us about how your interest in Roman History, and specifically the fall of the Roman Republic, began? 

As a sophomore in high school I signed up for Latin and had a wonderfully charismatic teacher.  She had been brought out of retirement just to keep Latin afloat but within a few years over a hundred students were enrolled.  We read Cicero’s speeches against Catiline and she told us that Cicero’s rhetoric was so powerful she had nightmares about Catiline.  I fell in love with the language and majored in Latin literature in college. In graduate school I became fascinated with how Vergil in his earliest poetry mourned land confiscations in Italy carried out by the future emperor Augustus.  To find out more, I read Ronald Syme’s Roman Revolution, one of the best books ever written about ancient Rome. It’s both a somber account of Augustus’ rise to power and a very juicy exposé of Rome’s ruling class. I was so enthralled by Syme’s account of Roman politics I’ve been studying the subject compulsively for twenty years since.

For your new book How To Be A Bad Emperor, you translated Suetonius’ biographies of the Roman emperors Julius Caesar, Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. You’ve been researching and teaching this period for decades. What new insights did translating Suetonius give you into the various Caesars?

Suetonius has the reputation of being a rather gossipy writer, and in some ways he was.  He took great pleasure in digging up the worst dirt he could find on the emperors and sharing it with his readers. Modern scholars have tended to view his biographies as a collection of anecdotal material, not always very reliable.  Working closely with Suetonius’ Latin made me see that his portraits of the emperors are coherent and convincing, even if some of his material may be more caricature than literal truth. Suetonius believed that power unmasks the true identity of leaders.  It brings to light weaknesses that were there all along but might have been overlooked.  For Julius Caesar this was arrogance; for Tiberius, a willingness to indulge his proclivity for personal pleasure; for Caligula, a fondness of cruelly taunting others; for Nero, an obsession with being the center of attention.  After translating Suetonius, I now understand the psychology of all of these men better. Passion rules many of us more than reason, a truth academic historians prefer to ignore.

How much personal interpretation goes into translating ancient texts? What was your goal in preparing this work?

As a translator, you have to come to grips with what you think the original text means.  That can mean study of how the author you’re translating uses particular words and phrases, or how other authors do.  Then you have to think about how you best capture the meaning you have in mind in English.  What do you think a contemporary audience will understand?  If you feel the original text is somewhat hard to follow, do you want to reproduce that for your reader?  Fortunately, Suetonius wrote a clear Latin and so I tried to make my translation lucid too.  This meant breaking up some longer sentences into shorter ones, since in English we don’t pile up the clauses as the Romans did.  Suetonius also has a wonderfully dry sense of humor and I tried to capture that.

You talk about how Suetonius somewhat humanizes the figures he wrote about by including smaller observations like their daily habits. Could you elaborate on some of those habits—good and bad—that may be more important or revealing than one might initially think?

The best example of this in Suetonius comes in one of the lives I did not translate, Domitian.  In his early days in power, Domitian would spend hours at a time locked up in a room trying to catch flies and stab them with his writing stylus.  Someone asked if anyone was in with Caesar, and the witty reply came: “Not even a fly.”  It all seems like a joke, but Domitian was revealing how obsessively he removed threats – and it was not so funny when he decided members of the Senate were out to get him.  In the four lives I translate there are plenty more examples.  Julius Caesar was irritated by the premature loss of his hair and tried to cover it up with a comb-over.  This might just seem like regular vanity, but Suetonius tells us what really bothered Caesar was how he was mocked for being bald.  This was a man who could not take a joke, much less an insult.

There are many interwoven elements between the period that you cover in the book and today, so if you had the opportunity to speak with senators and other political leaders today, what would you warn them about?

In his lives of the Caesars, Suetonius charts the fall of the Roman Republic, a period from which the writers of the US Constitution learned a lot and we can too. Probably the clearest warning is the dangers of excessive partisanship.  While many factors contributed to the rise of imperial government in Rome, it was a quarrel between Julius Caesar and his political enemies that irrevocably tipped the balance.  Each side stretched laws and norms to the breaking point and could barely recognize the other as fellow Romans.  I also would say that while in many ways Caesar looks the more aggressive to us, he was right to point out that his opponents neglected the interests of ordinary Romans.  It was precisely that circumstance that made his rise to dictatorial power possible.  Politicians must stay in touch with regular Americans and not spend all their time courting the media or wealthy donors.

Most of the more famous Stoics fall outside the timeline you write about, but it would be fascinating if you could provide any insight into what the philosophers were thinking and saying during the reigns of emperors like Augustus, Caligula, and Tiberius. What can we learn from them about living well even under a terrible leader?

It is no coincidence that Stoicism blossomed under the Roman emperors.  It’s the perfect philosophy for helping you carry on under trying conditions, whether it be illness, imprisonment, or a constant sense of danger.  A bad emperor, the Stoics would tell you, can never truly harm you.  It is within your control whether you suffer, or not.  You must not collaborate with a corrupt leader – and to resist him is an opportunity to grow stronger.  Roman Senators, who were almost hard-wired to seek glory, even saw an opportunity to win fame by defying a bad emperor like Nero.  They could set an example for posterity.

Emperors, it is worth noting, also found Stoicism a helpful guide for thinking about how to fulfill their own duties.  Augustus studied with the Stoic Areus of Alexandria.  And according to Suetonius, Augustus on his deathbed called in his friends and asked if he had played his part in the comedy of life well.  The question has a Stoic ring to it.

I would also point out that even those without philosophical training had another good coping mechanism for dealing with autocracy – humor.  Political jokes are common in repressive regimes, allowing individuals quietly to mock their rulers and retain at least a shred of sanity.  Suetonius reports many jokes about bad emperors.  After Tiberius moved full-time to the isle of Capri, people started calling his resort there “the old goat’s home,” punning on the Latin word for goat, caper.

Cato was such a towering figure to Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and generations of Stoics, but he wasn’t without his flaws. Examining Julius Caesar’s reign and Cato’s impassioned resistance, what are your thoughts on Cato? Could or should he have done anything differently?

The historian Sallust thought that Caesar and Cato were the two greatest Romans of his day – and Sallust was a former officer of Caesar.  This should tell us that Cato is not to be dismissed lightly.  While Caesar saw that Roman government was failing ordinary citizens, Cato grasped a great truth too: money was dominating politics excessively.  To win ever-more competitive elections, candidates resorted to bribery and they then ripped off provincials in the empire to cover the costs.  All of this destabilized the empire as well as the electoral system itself.  Cato also saw just how dangerous it could be to resort to violence to settle a political dispute.  Cato’s basic view was that Rome should be governed by disinterested statesmen and citizens should emulate their example.  This has inspired a rich republican tradition, including our own in the United States.  But Cato failed to build a coalition of enough Romans and Italians to take on Caesar successfully.

We’d love to hear from you on one of the “Five Good Emperors,” Marcus Aurelius. We’d be curious to hear your assessment of his rule in the grand scheme of things. What of his philosophy do you find most fascinating?

In their classic History of Rome the British historians M. Cary and H. H. Scullard quipped that Marcus was “better suited to the part of Hamlet than to that of Caesar.”  There is some truth to this.  Marcus had little military training in his youth, and this proved a challenge during his time in power.  That said, his Meditations, along with the record of his rule, haunts me.  To think that a Roman emperor, who could have been dressed in purple robes and served the finest foods by the most beautiful staff, preferred to sit up alone at night and contemplate his own insignificance in the vast cosmos, or to think that he would spend days and days on a single judicial hearing if that was necessary to see justice done: this is a powerful summons not to put ourselves and our own desires first.  If you or I became Caesar, would we live up to that example?

Last, any book recommendations?

Well I would recommend all of Suetonius (there are good translations by Donna Hurley and Catharine Edwards among others). Tom Holland’s Dynasty is a colorful account of the figures I treat in How to Be a Bad Emperor.  I always enjoying reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on bad emperors and much more.  Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler is a brilliant combination of intelligence work and history-writing in the classical style.  I like to read about good leaders too, especially in their own words.  The top of my list are Lincoln’s speeches and letters and almost anything by Churchill, including his sparkling memoir My Early Life.  Churchill’s account there of trying to learn Latin is not to be missed. Well-informed historical fiction is fun and insightful.  For bad emperors, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius is the starting point.  Currently I am enjoying William Safire’s novel on Lincoln, Freedom.