What is it about the Romans that continues to fascinate us? Laura Fraine asks Peter Jones, author of Veni, Vidi, Vici: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Romans but Were Afraid to Ask
Peter Jones is one of the country’s most esteemed classicists, best known for his Ancient & Modern column in The Spectator, which has run weekly for the last 23 years.
He writes from his home in Jesmond, where he has lived since 1979 when he moved from Cambridge to lecture in Classics at Newcastle University (he retired from this post in 1997 but remains busy).
Peter’s latest book, Veni, Vidi, Vici, published by Atlantic Books, will be a treat for anyone who thinks they know the Romans, but especially for those who think they don’t.
Veni Vidi Vici is an impressive feat – a book of real insight and authority but written with such a light touch and wry humour as to make it eminently readable.
Peter Jones takes the 1,200-year history of the Roman Empire and breaks it down into 500-word nuggets of interest, perfect for our short attention spans in a digital age.
From politics and philosophy to the most personal details about how people lived, there are real riches to explore here.
Perhaps most pleasingly, Peter breaks open the myths about the Romans and delights in the inconsistencies of exploring an ancient culture which we will never quite understand.
Take this item on Caesar:
“Caesar was not himself born by Caesarean section. The name, we are told, was given to the first of the Caesar family, for any of four reasons: he was cut from the womb of his dead mother (Latin, caedo, caes-, ‘I cut’); he had a ‘thick head of hair’ when he was born (Latin, caesaries); he had grey-blue (Latin, caesius) eyes; or that in battle he killed an elephant (caesai in Moorish). Take your pick.”
Peter’s love of learning was evident at school in south London, where he lapped up Latin and Greek. But it was at Cambridge that he really found his feet under “teachers who made you want to learn and were always encouraging you not to believe a word they said – the very heart of real university teaching”.
His move to Newcastle wasn’t unexpected. For one thing, he followed Prof David West whom he had met while training to be a schoolteacher in Edinburgh. For another, he followed Newcastle United.
Peter had been a fan of the football club since a six-week stay in hospital in London in 1951.
He explains: “They did not have a children’s ward so I was in with the adults who keenly followed the FA Cup – duly won by Newcastle that year.
“I have supported them ever since, and so have my long-suffering children.”
For him, the classical world continues to be highly relevant and he consults its wisdom weekly in his Spectator column.
“Every week I find something happening in our world on which the Greeks and Romans would have had something of relevance to say – politically, militarily, socially, legally, medically, artistically, educationally, you name it,” says Peter.
“This week, for example, I shall be talking about Boris Johnson, Alec Salmond and ancient attiudes towards political ambition (and noting that ‘ambition’ derives from the Latin ambitus, ‘bribery’!).”
It isn’t just the wisdom, but also the behaviour of the Romans which continues to fascinate.
“It’s easy to think of Romans as simple thugs. Far from it: as well as gladiatorial games and chariot racing, they loved high culture and exotic foreign goods,” says Peter.
“How did they run an empire stretching from Britain to Syria, from the Rhine to the Sahara, that lasted 700 years?’ he asks.
“By bringing order, and within that order letting people get on with it, without imposing the sort of ludicrous structures that the EU does on us.
“Step out of order and Romans were ruthless. Play the game and the world was your oyster – emperors came from all over the empire.
“When the Roman empire in the west collapsed in the 5th Century AD, it ushered in an economic dark age for 200 years. Then again, look at Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. What a shambles! Romans knew from bitter experience that you either move in and take full control, or you leave well alone.”
Fans of Veni, Vidi, Vici will be pleased to hear that a sister book, Eureka!, all about ancient Greece, is due out in November.
Peter will be in conversation with John Henry Clay, the author of The Lion and the Lamb, a novel set in Roman Britain, at Durham Book Festival on October 12.
Buy tickets online at www.durhambookfestival.com