How to be a Roman emperor

Mary Beard on the Times Literary Supplement:

What style of life did an ancient Roman emperor lead? How did he actually spend his time? The most familiar image is of one long party, interspersed with off-beat sex, casual sadism and megalomaniac pretensions of divine power. This is not only the stuff of film and fiction. Many of the most lurid stories come from ancient writers themselves, who told of Tiberius’ unsavoury antics with small boys in his swimming pool on Capri and of Domitian’s hobby of skewering flies with his pen. “Is there anyone in with the emperor?” a senator, outside the imperial suite, was once asked. “Not even a fly”, was the clever, if chilling, reply.

Far less common in film, but almost a cliché in university seminars, is a completely different image: the idea of the Roman ruler as an over-worked bureaucrat, up by dawn to start working through his correspondence, spending hours of the day adjudicating legal disputes from every part of the empire, burdened with the ancient equivalent of “red boxes” even on his days off. The Roman biographer Suetonius claims that Julius Caesar mastered the art of dictating letters from horseback, and used to deal with his paperwork while attending the circus games (thereby annoying the people at large, who saw this as snobbish disdain for popular entertainment).

I had to Google “red box:” “(in Britain) a box, typically covered in red leather, used to transport the official documents of a government minister.”

I wonder if it’s digital now, but still red? The Red Slack Channel?

Mitch Wagner @MitchWagner