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Novelist Lindsey Davis on Barbara Levick's Bio of Vespasian

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  • Jimmyjb
    I don t think you are getting that close to the Flavians yet, but this might be something for the back burner. Plus it s a great example of a novelist
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 3, 2000
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      I don't think you are getting that close to the Flavians yet, but this might be
      something for the back burner.
      Plus it's a great example of a novelist concentrating on a certain defined period
      evaluating a non-fictional biography in that period. Anyhow, it's well written
      and fun to read.

      Vespasian' by Barbara Levick
      an Appreciation by Lindsey Davis

      Some of us have been waiting years for this book. I was
      allowed to read a small
      section quite a long time ago, lest I commit unseemly errors
      in my fictional
      biography of Antonia Caenis, Vespasian's ladylove. Barbara
      Levick does not
      despise popular fiction; she is as rooted in real life as
      her down-to-earth subject
      must have been. Indeed, it is only because I know her to be
      an extremely jolly
      woman, and a fan of crime fiction, that I dare to comment on
      a work of such
      immense erudition in a discipline that is not mine.

      That there was no major modern biography of Vespasian had
      been a howling
      omission, and luckily the need to evaluate the Flavian
      dynasty as a whole allows
      Titus and Domitian to be hauled in alongside their father.
      (Three for the price of
      one: how Vespasian would have loved it!) We may never know
      much more about
      any of them personally than can be cautiously extracted from
      their near
      contemporaries: Suetonius in particular, bursting with a
      tabloid desire to sneer at
      these middle-class upstarts - yet not quite daring to
      rubbish their political
      achievements in case he then looks incompetent. Even
      Josephus, their tame hack,
      has more to say to re-enactment groups about the Roman
      army's methods and kit
      than he can tell any of us about the men who led it. As
      biographers, these chaps
      are, I fear, strangers to the Eng Lit concept of a
      'well-rounded character', posing
      problems which have to be skated round deftly by both
      Barbara and me in our
      different spheres.

      Her method here, firstly, is to write history for grown-ups,
      not for wimps who need
      the story explained. Sticking with the Eng Lit analogy, you
      are expected to have
      read the book under discussion and be ready to do some
      critical analysis. Once
      you wake up and pay attention, of course, this is fine. The
      no-nonsense, 'let's get
      down to it' approach admirably suits her subject. Briefings
      in a Flavian camp or
      court must have been just as polite, yet just as brisk and
      factual. And there really is
      a story too, one which she enjoys telling. She takes flight
      in fine fashion when
      relating the great Judaean campaign and its inextricably
      interlinked manoeuvres to
      make Vespasian Emperor. As political and military history,
      this matches anything in
      Caesar, and is all the better for having at its centre a man
      you can warm to.

      The man is vital. We see, moreover, that Vespasian was the
      proverbial right man at
      the right time. Acquiring the Empire at sixty, he had
      maturity and experience - plus
      convenient heirs. While definitely not a man 'with nothing
      to prove' (he was given
      an unexpected chance and certainly meant to make the best of
      it), yet in some ways
      he could relax; he lacked the dreadful po-faced striving for
      effect that characterised
      earlier emperors and even damaged his own sons. Taking over
      Rome when things
      could hardly have been worse, his task was enormous. As she
      examines the
      geographical and institutional fabric of that empire,
      Barbara Levick shows how he
      rebuilt each element intelligently and systematically, aided
      by the careful
      deployment of trusted personnel.

      This is where she triumphs. I was struck by the enormous
      range of people,
      previously mere names in arcane textbooks, who are for the
      first time illuminated by
      swift character sketches, then given their precise relevance
      to events, their
      marriage ties mentioned, their personal aspirations subtly
      judged. For me, the
      book's finest achievement is this portrait of the whole
      Flavian period. Society in the
      AD70's and 80's comes alive in a way that normally only
      happened with the
      devious personalities on the long road to Actium and those
      hackneyed
      Julio-Claudians. How refreshing to explore a new cast. (Even
      better that so many of
      them seem to be honest 'doers' and 'fixers'.) The detail is
      stupendous. This is true
      scholarship. And it has a particular point: Levick persuades
      us that Vespasian had
      a genuine wish to do right. He was rebuilding the Empire not
      for a private
      challenge, like a hobbyist perfecting a matchstick model,
      but really to create a
      decent, rewarding environment for the people who lived
      there.

      Ultimately she sets his achievement in context, judged as it
      now surely ought to be
      as the foundation for the Second Century heyday that has
      always seemed more
      glamorous - for reasons I could never understand, because
      what could be more
      interesting and exciting than to change chaos and bankruptcy
      into a system that
      runs well, where most people are content? And come to that,
      why should the
      Decline and Fall of an Empire fascinate so much more than
      its establishment and
      rise? We live in a corrupt and jaded society. It is
      encouraging to remember that
      after great cycles of ruin there may come renewal.

      I am a closet administrator so I was bound to love this
      book. Just why did that
      famous Vespasianic charge on urine attract such attention?
      It was a tax-efficient,
      environmentally useful, brilliantly simple, humorous fiscal
      measure. Anyone who
      has been any kind of administrator has to marvel. Anyone who
      could invent it, has
      to be appealing.

      So the subject matter attracts in itself: the portrait of an
      era, the tale-telling of
      events, the triumph of the man. There is another aspect.
      Barbara Levick's
      'Vespasian' represents her own lifetime achievement as a
      historian and a teacher.
      For me it exemplifies what scholarship should be: the
      meticulous search for
      information not just because it is proper, but because it is
      also fun; the intelligent
      and practical judgement; the continuing evaluation of
      material; the desire to
      communicate; the sudden flash of wit that thrills. All of
      those are here. Any
      student of the period will need this book - and what's more,
      it will have its place in
      the creation of crime fiction too.


      Lindsey Davis 1999


      Lindsey Davis is the bestselling author of the celebrated
      Marcus Didius Falco
      series of detective novels set in ancient Rome. Her latest
      book is One Virgin Too
      Many. Lindsey Davis was Honorary President of the Classical
      Association in
      1997/1998.
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