March 16, 2005

More Wolfe Whistling

In connection with reading A Man In Full, I was musing yesterday about Tom Wolfe and classical music. Today I find myself musing about Wolfe and classical history.

For those of you who haven't read it, a key theme of the book, which is set in modern Atlanta, is the philosophy of the Roman Stoics. In explaining their background to Charlie Croker, Conrad - the "messenger" of the Stoic virtues - states that Nero reigned in 95 A.D. and that he was succeeded by Domitian.

I hope I'm not being a complete dork about it, but I love classical history and this is wrong on both counts. Nero was the last of the so-called Julio-Claudian emperors (after Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius), members of the family of Augustus who inherited his powers and fashioned them into a true Imperial office. Nero became Emperor in 54 A.D. and eventually killed himself in 68 A.D.

The sudden power vacuum caused a crisis in Roman Imperial politics as several factional rivals attempted to seize the throne. In quick succession between 68 and 69 A.D., Galba, Otho and Vitellius grabbed power, either to be assassinated or kill themselves in short order.

Finally, still in 69 A.D., Vespasian, a hard-headed military commander who had campaigned extensively in the East, seized the throne. With strong military backing, he had no rivals to speak of. Also, he had no interest in the decadent ways into which Roman society had fallen and, in effect, made respectibility fashionable again. He ruled peacefully for 10 years until his death. Vespasian was succeeded by his elder son Titus, who ruled for only two years on his own, although he had assisted Vespasian for some time prior to that.

It was on Titus' death in 81 A.D. that he was succeeded by his brother Domitian. Domitian's rule was a train-wreck, a reprise of the worst aspects of Nero's reign. He was eventually assassinated in 96 A.D.

(By the way, for you fans of the movie Gladiator, after another couple of pretenders came and went in short order, Domitian was eventually succeeded by Nerva, the first of Gibbon's five "Good Emperors". He, in turn, was succeeded by Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and, finally, Marcus Aurelius. Commodus did succeed Aurelius and was, purportedly, killed by a hired gladiator, but he ruled for 12 years before his enemies got to him.)

Wolfe uses a Greek-born philosopher named Epictetus as his primary source of Stoic wisdom. I don't know enough about classical philosophy to say whether Wolfe's extensive quotations are accurate or not. But according to some quick research, Epictetus lived from 55 A.D. to 135 A.D. Obviously, he would not have had anything to do with Nero, but he was, in fact, exiled by Domitian in 89 A.D. for his beliefs.

Wolfe also mentions two other classical figures specifically in connection with Nero's reign. One is a certain Agrippinus, a Stoic, who refused to make a fool of himself by participating in some entertainments commanded by Nero. The other is Florus, a historian, who, according to Wolfe, Agrippinus upbraids for even considering bowing to the Imperial command. Well, the bit about Agrippinus appears to check out. But the only historian named Florus I can find wrote a Cliffnotes version of the works of Livy during the reign of Hadrian (117-138 A.D.).

So why do I bring this up? Well, the glaring error about Roman Imperial succession leapt right out at me when I read it. This had the effect of making me suspicious about the other assertions Wolfe made about classical history and philosophy. Some quick research suggests that Wolfe has, in fact, mangled things a bit.

Of course, A Man In Full is a work of fiction. Artistic license and all that. But it seems to me that Wolfe's message would be more effective if, when he relies on what one might call gen-u-ine facts, he gets them right. When I become aware of this kind of fudging, especially when it involves such easily checkable facts, it tends to dampen my enjoyment of the rest of what the author is trying to say.

Okay.....maybe I am a dork.

Posted by Robert at March 16, 2005 09:28 AM

BTW, for an interesting (and delightfully inventive) romp through the period of Vespasian's rule, don't miss the novels of Lindsey Davis, featuring the one and only Marcus Didius Falco.

Posted by: D. Carter at March 16, 2005 09:56 AM

Heh - you mean the one who sang "Rock Me, Amadeus"? Cool!

Posted by: Robert the LB at March 16, 2005 10:00 AM

Wolfe needs better editors. The Beethoven mistake was bad enough, but this is too much.

And what's with the white suits? Crazy.

Posted by: The Colossus at March 16, 2005 10:19 AM

I read, in my youth, a collection of Epictetus's works (aphorisms, really) called The Enchiridion.

An online version is here.

Thoroughly depressing. As a teenager I loved it. I was pretty depressed as a teenager.

Posted by: The Colossus at March 16, 2005 10:35 AM

Oh God, I hope he never stops wearing white suits. I love his nuttiness. You want writers to be sane and conventional? Are you out of your mind??

But I do agree the man needs a better editor.

Posted by: red at March 16, 2005 10:52 AM

I, too, hope he hangs on to the white suit.

As I said, I did a quick scan of some passages from Epictetus' Discourses but did not recognize anything Wolfe quoted. I'm not saying I think Wolfe fudged the quotes, I just don't know.

The only Stoic I ever read to any extent was Seneca the Younger. I've always thought he was a SINO (Stoic in Name Only), given his involvement in intrigue and gossip at Nero's court. And I've never forgiven him for his slander of Claudius in the Apocolocyntosis, which I consider to be a first class piece of Nero's butt-kissing.

Posted by: Robert the LB at March 16, 2005 11:06 AM


Er, no, I mean a fictional character named Marcus Didius Falco. Although, having checked the web for the one you're talking about and having found a photograph, I think maybe yours is fictional, too.

Incidentally, my brother-in-law lives in the Andes (about an hour's drive out of Santiago) and he has a couple of llamas. Nothing odd about that, I guess, but he lets them in the house when the weather gets particularly cold. THAT sounds a little strange.

Posted by: D. Carter at March 16, 2005 11:08 AM

D. - Love the adventures of M. Falco. I wonder if we will eventually see him during Domitian's rule. It would be a much darker series, if we do, I imagine.

Posted by: Eric J at March 16, 2005 11:30 AM


Now, that's an intriguing notion. I don't know whether we'll see Falco operating in the reign of Domitian or not, although in one of the novels Falco does make a chilling comment, a sort of allusive foreshadowing, about keeping a low profile under that horrible emperor.

Posted by: D. Carter at March 16, 2005 11:51 AM

I've read that book too, it's one of my favorites. I've also read a lot on the Stoics. What Wolfe most seemingly did, was alter Stoic philosophy and text to fit the theme of his book. Which is fine, because most people reading the book don't know shit about Stoism.

But unfortunately, I took a class in school where they made us read old things... ugh... Greeks did what? GET OUT OF MY HEAD!!!

Posted by: Hector Vex at March 16, 2005 12:25 PM

Hi. Cool theme, but this is interesting too:

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Posted by: atmor at September 15, 2005 06:03 AM
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