This novel about Tiberius completes Jacek Bocheński’s Roman trilogy. The first part, Divine Julius (1961) and the second, Naso the Poet (1967), were read as examples of “Aesopian” literature, which escapes into the language of allusion and the metaphor of historical costume as a way of smuggling unprintable truths past the censor. In the character of Julius Caesar the figure of Joseph Stalin could be seen, and the novel about Ovid seemed to be describing the fate of the exiled poet Joseph Brodsky. Tiberius Caesar bids us look at those novels in a new light. In telling the story of a great ruler, a man who wanted to change the world but was ill-starred and had the historians against him, Bocheński writes about age-old human passions, fears and desires, terror and courage, the nature of power, and the role of necessity and chance in our life. He also considers what is historical truth, what is cruelty and what is sexuality, and asks the question: “what does it mean to be oneself?” Like the earlier ones, this novel too teaches the lesson that human nature never changes. But thanks to this message this novel about Tiberius, which Bocheński started writing in 1970 and abandoned for several decades when even his friends found his descriptions of Roman decadence too extreme and sexually bold, is also about our modern era. As the narrator of his novel Bocheński has a tour guide (in Divine Julius it was an antiquarian, and in Naso the Poet it was a compère and an investigator). Timescales mix, so do the voices of ancient historians and characters in the novel, and also those of the people taking part in the tourist trip. Bocheński’s narrator conducts a polemic with the ancient and modern Italian Marxists who ended up as the spiritual mentors of the Red Brigades (Bocheński is also the author of Blood-Red Italian Sweetmeats, an excellent book about terrorism). This expedition to ancient Rome and its provinces is a journey deep into the soul of modern-day man, the heir to Tiberius and his equal.
- Marek Zaleski
Come on, hurry up! The accelerated pace of the world. The new comedy of life. But of course, applause is essential. Right now, from the very start. Ladies and gentlemen, you are invited to a session of the Senate in Rome. A murmur runs through the public of some two thousand – that’s who you are. The session is being held at the Curia, a historical building on the Forum, recently restored by Julius Caesar, and carefully completed by Augustus. As I conduct you inside, note the high walls and the long, rectangular nave – in the middle, please, on either side there are parallel rows of seats. Please find yourself a place. Excellent acoustics. Today’s agenda includes only one item, well, all right, two items: the first citizen’s statement and a debate. What first citizen? Who appointed him? By what right? A murmur among the opposition. It’s a put-up job! Manipulation! Provocation! Who appointed Tiberius as first citizen? In the city of Nola, straight after the death of Augustus, it was announced that Tiberius had assumed power. Applause. Maybe Livia appointed him? Murmurs, applause. He is her son, that’s all. But that does not authorise her to declare Tiberius first citizen. All right, I, the tour guide… applause… please pay attention. I am authorised to announce… Authorised by whom? By Tacitus, The Annals, Book One, paragraph seven. Whistles, applause. I am authorised to announce that at the present time Tiberius is not yet performing the function of first citizen. Whistles. Not yet? He has not summoned this session as first citizen. Illegally! Illegally! Hubbub among the opposition. He has summoned this session legally by force of the tribune’s entitlements that are his right and by no other… Caesar! Caesar! An ovation…. and by no other… Caesar! Caesar! My words are lost in the tumult. Suddenly a lone voice cries: Who killed Agrippa Postumus? Please do not disrupt… Postumus! Postumus! Postumus! Agrippa Postumus! Where is Agrippa Postumus? There is no such item on today’s agenda. Who killed him? Please be quiet. The agenda includes the son’s statement about honouring his late father. And a debate. And a debate.
Once again I insist that you please be quiet. The announcements will be read out. The consuls of the current term have sworn an oath of loyalty to the first citizen. What first citizen? The first citizen is dead. All right, the son of the deceased. The dead man never wanted that son. It’s usurpation! Voice: But he adopted him. Voice: Because he had to. The second announcement will be read out. Applause. The sworn-in consuls have already administered further oaths themselves… Tacitus: As if the old republican regime still existed. They administered the oath to Seius Strabo, prefect of the Praetorian Guard (information for those in the know: Seius is the father of Sejanus, the future prefect of the Guard, whose final fortunes will one day be announced by light signals on Capreae). Public security… applause… is guaranteed. Applause. They have administered the oath to the head of the supply programme… Applause. Provisioning the population… Voice: Who killed Agrippa?
Ladies and gentlemen, I am authorised to announce that the prisoner Agrippa Postumus, mentally disturbed, condemned by decree of the Senate to remain in a place of isolation, was indeed in those days executed. By whom? By a centurion who did, perhaps, abuse… On whose orders? Gentlemen, I am authorised to announce that the first, I am sorry, the son of the late Augustus Caesar, Tiberius Caesar, did not give the order and will not pass comment on it. A murmur among the people. Tacitus: Simulabat iussa patris. He faked his father’s order. Tacitus’ inscrutable words.
But this matter is not on today’s agenda. Behind the scenes people are saying it was going to be, and by decision of Tiberius the centurion who killed him was supposed to testify before the Senate, but the matter was taken off the agenda when Sallustius Crispus intervened with Livia. Who is Sallustius Crispus? The head of the political cabinet. Of what? The cabinet? We have never heard of such a thing. What sort of cabinet? A secret one. Naturally, but whose? The first citizen’s cabinet. Meaning whose? The new one or the old one? It’s always the same cabinet. Aha, aha. And this head, or whatever he is… Sallustius Crispus, intervened with Livia, not Tiberius? They say he’s her man. He intervened so that Tiberius would not present all the matters to the Senate to examine that apparently he wanted to. There are certain matters, state secrets, the friendly suggestions of advisors, the operations of services that must be subject to one-man control – that is a condition of responsible governing. That is how Sallustius Crispus put it. Tacitus: For fear that he would be responsible himself.
But please come into the hall. In a moment the first citizen will enter, in other words the son of the Divine Augustus, to address the gathering of father-senators. The son is coming with a military escort and is accompanied by his own son, Drusus. He is woebegone and distressed, in mourning for the Divine One, whose body he has not left for the past few days, as he put it in his edict convoking the Senate. He repeats these words.
“Senators, I have taken the liberty of calling you together for one single purpose, that we might confer on how to honour my father. I intend to give him a ceremonial funeral and pay him all due homage. Only so far do I claim for myself the right to take public action – I have no aspirations beyond that.”
He has a speech written out in praise of the deceased, and starts to read it, but his voice falters. He cannot control his agitation, his excessive emotion and pain, no one knows exactly what his feelings are. No one understands the meaning of his declaration that he has no aspirations. Is he in such terrible despair because of his father’s death? Is he an actor? Or a hypocrite?
“I have lost my voice,” he says. “I would rather lose my life than my voice at this moment.”
He asks his son Drusus to read his speech to the end. So in his father’s name Drusus reads a tribute to his grandfather, the Divine Augustus. Tiberius is still unable to pull himself together. Thank you for being willing, despite a colossal difference in eras and cultures, to adapt to this atmosphere. The Senate are silent as they concentrate on mourning. Please maintain this solemn mood for a while longer. The vestal virgins will now enter the hall.
The vestal virgins bring in the dead man’s will. It will be read out. Tiberius tells his secretary to do this, a freed man, an anonymous person fulfilling a purely technical role, more or less what a record player does for you at home. Please take no notice of the freed man, but listen to the will. There is no amplification, no cameras, microphones or screens, because they didn’t exist. But there is a will.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones