Palatine: An Alternative History of the Caesars by Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard’s tremendous history of Rome under the first imperial dynasty begins, quite literally, in the doghouse. It’s AD69, the Year of the Four Emperors, and the city is in turmoil. In his deserted palace on the Palatine Hill, the vast, sweating figure of Aulus Vitellius is searching for a hiding place. He staggers through audience chambers, offices, banqueting halls and kitchens until, in desperation, he pushes at an unmarked door and finds himself in a darkened room where his guards used to keep their dogs.

Vitellius props a bed against the door and listens hard. He can hear soldiers’ voices and the sound of boots on marble. He’s a huge, hulking man, his belt of hidden gold coins taut around his bulging waist. He waits, scarcely daring to breathe. The footsteps come closer. The door opens. He feels rough hands on his toga, a dog snapping at his legs. The game is over; he has barely an hour left to live.

Ever since Suetonius’s gloriously gossipy The Twelve Caesars, people have loved to retell the stories of Rome’s first emperors. Nobody, though, has done it quite like Stothard. A former editor of The Times, he changes the angle so that we see Augustus, Caligula, Nero and co from the perspective of the people around them — the lesser-known courtiers, flatterers and parvenus hanging around Rome’s Palatine Hill.

In particular, he focuses on one family, the Vitellii, who originally came from a town just south of Mount Vesuvius. For years they had climbed the ladder, “quietly, faithfully, sometimes ambiguously”. Aulus’s grandfather, Publius, worked as a palace official under the first emperor, Augustus, while his father, Lucius, made himself an indispensable courtier to the next three emperors, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius.

We see Augustus, Caligula, and Nero from the perspective of the lesser-known courtiers, flatterers and parvenus hanging around Rome’s Palatine Hill.

Through the eyes of these men, Stothard lets us see how power really worked, in public and private. We glimpse the emperors at work and at play, in the dining room and in the bedroom. And we see how even they, despite the sycophants, were often prisoners, not architects, of the system. One false step and it would all be over. As emperor for just eight months, Aulus would learn that lesson the hard way.

Since the sources for the first century are so colorful, books on this period are often highly entertaining. Stothard’s is no exception. He is excellent on the political importance of space, showing how Augustus’s original house on the Palatine Hill, with its vines and nut trees and sculptures and colonnades, evolved into the sprawling complex of the imperial household. And he’s terrific on the skills of flattery, which Lucius Vitellius took to a high art. “I am talking to the Moon,” the terrifying Caligula says at one point. “Can you see her with me too?” And as quick as a flash, Lucius smiles and says he can’t because gods are “visible only to other gods”, like his beloved emperor.

What really gets Stothard going, though, are two subjects Roman enthusiasts always relish: sex and food. He reproduces all the best gossip, such as the stories about Tiberius’s summer house on Capri, where the emperor supposedly kept a troupe of boys called his “little fishes”, who licked between his legs as he swam. The Vitellii themselves, incidentally, were not immune from such allegations. Lucius was said to have a passion for the saliva of one of his ex-slaves, which he drank with honey after a hard day’s flattery.

As for food, Stothard shows how it was always political, from Augustus’s “small figs and second-class bread” and Tiberius’s fondness for the “humble cucumber” — which emphasized these first emperors’ seriousness and modesty — to the luxurious blowouts of Caligula and Nero, with their stuffed dormice, scalded duck and stewed lampreys. He argues that dining was a kind of political theater: a meal with an emperor was a moment of risk as well as opportunity, which could end with a lucrative governorship or a knife in your back.

Lucius was said to have a passion for the saliva of one of his ex-slaves, which he drank with honey after a hard day’s flattery.

And he is fascinating on the intersection of food and sex, not least in the slang of the streets. “A slow chewer,” he writes, “was a slow sucker; a pot or ladle used by women in the kitchen was a ready metaphor for a vagina; butchery shared the verbs of buggery.” The great sin, though, was gluttony, which the Romans saw as a “character flaw, a permanent part of a man”. To be a glutton was to be weak, undisciplined, a political failure. “Losing power,” Stothard writes, “was a far bigger fall than overeating, but lurid details of guzzling and vomiting would stay longer in later memories.”

All of this takes us back to Aulus Vitellius, quivering in the palace kennel. A practiced courtier who had attended Tiberius on Capri and raced chariots with Caligula, he had never wanted to be emperor. But when Nero fell from power in the summer of AD68 and was replaced by the austere, unlikable Galba, Vitellius was thrust into the limelight. Quite unexpectedly, his troops on the Rhine mutinied and proclaimed him emperor, and almost against his better judgment he found himself marching on the capital.

Stothard tells this story superbly, his narrative gathering pace as the end approaches. Horribly out of his depth, poor Vitellius lasted less than a year. When his rival Vespasian’s soldiers dragged him out of the doghouse, his hands tied behind his back, he begged for his life. But his power had gone, and with that, Stothard writes, he became a “very ordinary man with ordinary vices”, not least his prodigious appetite. His last words, as the soldiers drew their swords, were a howl of anguish: “And yet I was your emperor!” Today he’s remembered for his gargantuan fatness. But that, as Stothard shows, could hardly be more Roman.

Dominic Sandbrook co-hosts the podcast The Rest Is History and is the author of eight books, including Adventures in Time: The Six Wives of Henry VIII