Quintus Saturnus The Time of Five EmperorsJustin Cahill / History & Fiction
The Time of Five Emperors
By Justin Cahill
Copyright 2015 Justin Cahill
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Cover: Roman period First Century AD marble grave stele found at Samsun in Turkey and inscribed “Know ye that death is right beside all mortals”, now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum (Inventory 1122 T, Mendel Catalogue 888).
The recent discovery and transcription, in Latin, of a manuscript found in the Library of Congress relating to Quintus Saturnus, a mason resident in first century Rome, has provoked much academic, and some popular, interest.
Collected by Thomas Jefferson, it was bequeathed by him, along with other papers, to the Library. On receipt, it was misfiled under the label ‘Masonic Memoirs’, rather than its correct title Memoirs of a Mason, a direct result of the somewhat halting Latin in which it was composed. There, it lay there undisturbed for some two and a quarter centuries prior to its rediscovery during my own research into Jefferson’s literary works.
Saturnus’ account derives importance from both its subject matter and its perspective. He deals with the events of 69AD, the infamous ‘Year of Four Emperors’, during which the Empire was rent by civil wars following the death of Nero.
While Saturnus himself refers to the period as the ‘time of five emperors’, he must simply be taken to mean that Rome had, as it did, five rulers in the eighteen months from June 68AD to December 69 AD: Nero, then Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. This alternate description simply confirms JFC Harrison’s dictum that, for ordinary people, the traditional periodisation of history is not always appropriate, their lives often being “…largely determined by other considerations.” (Harrison, The Common People: A History from the Norman Conquest to the Present, Fontana Paperbacks, London, 1984, p.14). As we shall see, Saturnus’ dominant consideration was recovering payment for services rendered to the Imperial household: who in fact ruled over it was almost irrelevant.
Although Saturnus’ account offers little new information on these dramatic times, it generally confirms that given by Tacitus in the surviving chapters of his Histories, the most detailed surviving account, albeit written almost forty years after the events described. He also confirms the veracity of several episodes recounted by Suetonius in his celebrated Lives of the Twelve Caesars, one of our few other primary sources on these times. Written several decades after 69AD and often dismissed as scurrilous gossip, Saturnus vindicates Suetonius’ account several episodes. More importantly, for social historians Saturnus provides us a rare insight into the mid of Rome’s plebeian class and its pre-occupations.
This, I hasten to note, is merely a preliminary translation issued to satisfy immediate public demand. Saturnus’ Latin, as I have noted above, is the rough dialect of Rome’s urban working class and is peppered with colloquialisms and, in some places, profanity.
That such a text would survive at all is due to mere chance. Jefferson’s notes indicate it was found as part of the binding of a ninth century manuscript copy of St Augustine’s City of God. This aside the text, despite its humble origins, is remarkably free from corruptions and lacunae. I have indicated some vagaries in my reading of it by using square brackets.
A more considered translation and detailed commentary is in preparation and will be published in due course. In the meantime, I must acknowledge the generous bequest of the Julia C and Lily C Bockerah Foundation for the Humanities towards this project and also to the Provost and Fellows of Christ’s College for granting me, at short notice, the sabbatical necessary to facilitate this work.
Associate Professor Paul Redwing, BA (Oxon) M.Phil (Stanford), Phd (Oxon)
Standford Centre for Classical Studies
All Souls Day, 2015.
This account I dictate to my freeman and secretary, Pallus, so this time of five emperors will not go unforgotten. I am a master mason, one Rome’s best. Any man can say such a thing. But believe me ! I come from a long line of masons. There is little we cannot do. Your wife has just died ? I grieve for you, as I would if had lost my beloved Platua. Yet for a few sestertii I can immortalise her in stone as a goddess.
Indeed my late and honoured father did [come to] immortalise a goddess - many times. He was a favourite of the Divine Livia, beloved wife of the Divine Augustus. He received her patronage and his busts of her are still to be seen in many temples, and many cheap knock-offs, throughout the Empire.
It is a good, honest trade. Should I be privileged to commemorate your wife, it is not with just any stone, but the purest marble available in the City. The best of it is white and almost translucent. Sculpting it is a pleasure, [the stone] being so soft the tools pass across it like a knife over butter. My beloved Platua, who keeps my books, is sister to the quarry-owner. That is the Roman way. And my brother-in-law, [he has] never let me down or supplied me with inferior stone.
Our service is the best. I have five freeman, three of whom can read and write: they are Greeks. And I have ten slaves - all good, honest men. I treat [them] well so they work well and when, Gods willing, I leave this life I will grant them liberty. For if there are no gratitude or rewards in this life, how are we to live ?
Our main work is sculpture. We produce statues and busts, mostly for funerary monuments. Nothing is more certain that death my friend ! In this trade, there is always work and where there is work there is bread.
We have, as I have said, done some imperial work. These days, everyone has a bust or, if they can afford it, a life-sized statue of the emperor at which to worship. Some query this - worshipping a dead man as a god and his wife as a goddess as if we were degenerate Orientals before their idols. But let me tell you, it brings order. And without order, we are nothing but dogs scrounging in the rubbish.
My father, as I have said, was received by the Divine Livia. He saw too, from a distance, the Divine Augustus. By then they were very old and, being noble, did not converse with him as he worked.
Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus, he also knew; his father [my grandfather] having served in his Legions in Germania. Tiberius promoted him to centurion and personally handed him the insignia - a great honour for a man of humble birth. It was his brother, my great-uncle, who continued the family trade. When my father was orphaned he took him in. He then adopted him and the trade passed to us. I have the busts of my grandfather, great-uncle and father here, still on the family altar with the household gods as I speak. All good, honest men.
Of the one called ‘Caligula’, I know nothing: his memory is damned. [But as] a child I saw the Divine Claudius preside at the Law Courts. He was of distinguished appearance with a mop of white hair. At mid-day, when the priests would offer sacrifice to Jupiter, we would smell the roasting meat. He [Claudius] would become distracted, sniff the air and begin to drool. The court would quickly be adjourned for the afternoon.
Nero, who came after Claudius, I myself knew. Agrippina, his mother, had long admired our busts of the Divine Livia and granted us her patronage. And so we came to do more work in the imperial line. My first major work was a bust of Nero. It was to be sent to Britannia so the engravers there could make the dies for the coins.
My father, then too old to carve, myself and several freeman, who were to make preliminary sketches and notes, accompanied us to the Imperial Palace. Nero sat outside in the garden while I hastily modeled a rough bust of clay with my father’s guidance. The Emperor read as we worked, bursting into laughter every so often. He was, I should say, the most patient of my subjects, sitting for well on two hours. When we were finished, he personally inspected all our work. “A good likeness !” he declared of my clay bust. “If mother was not dead, she would know it was me!” He laughed [heartily] as we were escorted from the Palace [Nero had his mother, Agrippina the Younger, murdered in 59AD].
That was in the consulship of Silianus and Atticus [65AD]. Then, as everyone knows, came the great fire started by the Christians. The Gods be thanked for sparing us ! But my sister and her husband, a wheelwright, and their five little ones all perished in the flames. I myself carved their memorial [which I built] with my own hands on the via Appia. Nero had the Christians burnt: I watched them [being] tied to stakes in the Circus and cheered with the others as the flames consumed them. Later, Nero [was forced] to flee and killed himself. His memory was damned. When the news broke, the City was in panic. But there was calm when we learned there was to be a new emperor, Galba.
It was, I think,