"Power tends to corrupt..."
September 4, 2013 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Gore Vidal's reflections on Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars

Some key excerpts:

"The twelve Caesars were a fairly representative lot. They differed from us - and their contemporaries - only in the fact of power. This is the psychological fascination of Suetonius. What will men so placed do? The answer, apparently, is anything and everything."

"What, finally, was the effect of absolute power on twelve representative men? Suetonius makes it quite plain: disastrous."

"Most of the world today is governed by Caesars. Men are more and more treated as things. Torture is ubiquitous. And, as Sartre wrote, 'Anybody, at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner.' Suetonius, in holding up a mirror to those Caesars of diverting legend, reflects not only them but ourselves: half-tamed creatures, whose great moral task it is to hold in balance the angel and the monster within - for we are both, and to ignore this duality is to invite disaster."
posted by paleyellowwithorange (12 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
paleyellowwithorange: Thank you! I miss Gore Vidal!

For the yet uninitiated...

The Education of Gore Vidal

God is a Blackmailer

1995 BBC Documentary Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Gore Vidal at NY Society for Ethical Culture Part 1 Part 2

Gore Vidal on Understanding America's Terrorist Crisis

posted by Vibrissae at 7:55 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia on Suetonius, and the text of the Lives.
posted by louie at 8:06 PM on September 4, 2013

That "God is a Blackmailer" piece is great. Gore Vidal was a truly amazing person.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 8:45 PM on September 4, 2013

vulnerable to the first messiah who offers the young and bored some splendid prospect, some Caesarian certainty. That is the political danger, and it is a real one.

It seems he was way off the mark on this one. From what I've observed youth are significantly more bored, disaffected, and less susceptible to "Caesarian certainty" in 2013 than they were in 1959 when he wrote this.
posted by Ndwright at 9:46 PM on September 4, 2013

Interesting. Got me more interested in Vidal. But I'm not sure whether to try "Julian" or try "I, Claudius" or "Memoirs of Hadrian."

Any must-read essays? I'll probably grab a collection, but want to prioritize.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:30 PM on September 4, 2013

Julian is a great novel. Recommended.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:55 AM on September 5, 2013

Nicely stated: Pax Romana was not a calculated policy but a fortunate accident.

This was new to me: Had Claudius not wanted an easy conquest so that he might celebrate a triumph at Rome, Britain would not have been conquered in AD 44. If Britain had not been colonized in the first century... the chain of causality is plain.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 4:41 AM on September 5, 2013

The big-ass collection of Vidal's essays United States is imposing from the outside -- the volume is big enough that you could use it to stun an attacking bobcat -- but it's chatty and fast-reading on the inside. The man was brilliant and crotchety and grumpy and hilarious in a patrician way, and his essays are a fine introduction to his style and mind. The individual pieces tend to be brief, so you can graze through the book easily.

I can't remember the titles of the individual essays, but a few favorites off of the top of my head are his piece on F. Scott Fitzgerald, a few different pieces on his friend Tennessee Williams, the one that introduced me to Montaigne, and a hilarious piece where he read and commented on the top ten bestsellers for a week in 1973. Gore Vidal writing about "The Eiger Sanction" is not to be missed. God, I love that collection.

As far as his novels go, I'm partial to Julian and Lincoln, both portraits of powerful and unusual men out of step with their times and hard for their contemporaries to understand. Others of his novels didn't do much for me.

True story: my littlest likes to raid my bookshelves and carry around a book just like daddy does. Her favorite volume to tote around the house is an ancient paperback of Myra Breckinridge. This amuses me greatly.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 5:56 AM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I second the recommendation of Julian. Should reread it one of these days.
posted by ersatz at 6:18 AM on September 5, 2013

Julian is a great novel. Recommended.

My favourite Vidal novel is his 1981 historical epic Creation about a Persian diplomat traveling the silk road to India and China in 5th century BCE. It is excellent, and also quite hilarious in parts. It's on my bookshelf beside "I, Claudius". Out of Vidal's American novels I liked "Burr".

For his historical essays there is a swell short cynical text version of his 1998 miniseries The American Presidency which is not as commonly available as his other writing. This miniseries is currently posted on YT with Spanish subtitles.
posted by ovvl at 6:39 AM on September 5, 2013

I quite enjoyed Memoirs of Hadrian.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:06 AM on September 5, 2013

"Julian" or try "I, Claudius" or "Memoirs of Hadrian."

You've listed them in rising order of literary value, with the last far outstripping the first two. You should read them all. Vidal of course is great good fun but he does have that axe to grind.

Had Claudius not wanted an easy conquest so that he might celebrate a triumph at Rome, Britain would not have been conquered in AD 44.

There was more to it than that. Rome had been in Britain since the invasion by Julius Caesar. By the time Claudius came along, there was steady trade between Rome and the island. there were also inter-tribal wars. Some tribes asked Rome to come help sort it out. One hand washes the other.

Mr V. was not always one for nuance.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:02 PM on September 5, 2013

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