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FROM THE MAINLAND, Capri looks tantalizingly near, peaking up from the sea like a perfect meringue, just out of reach, but it has always been a world apart. The island is just twenty-two nautical miles from Naples, yet until the twentieth century, getting there was an adventure. The Gulf of Naples is often crossed by storms, and high seas are common even in fine weather. The island is girdled by rocky cliffs, with two small coves: the Marina Grande, a ridiculous misnomer, which was barely large enough to accommodate seagoing ships until the Fascists modernized the port in the 1920s, and the Marina Piccola, little more than an anchorage, with no beach to make landfall. Even when steamships were making transatlantic travel routine, a cruise to Capri was scarcely less perilous than it was when Goethe attempted to visit there, in 1787. The poet breathed a sigh of relief when his ship turned away during a terrifying electrical storm, and “we left that dangerous rocky island behind us.”
The main reason that Capri managed to remain aloof throughout most of its history was its poverty, extreme even by the standards of southern Italy. The island made a poor prize for invaders. Its stony, precipitous terrain was unsuitable for agriculture apart from lemons, which grew in prodigious plenty on the mainland, and grapes, but Capriote wine was notoriously bad. The island had little to offer except lovely views, admired by everyone who came to visit but worthless until the twentieth century, when the boom of mass tourism made the island rich.
On historical maps, Capri turns from pink to blue to purple, to represent it as a territory claimed by whatever empire was holding dominion over Naples, always the island’s true liege. Greeks, then Romans, the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires, Napoleon and the Bourbons, swapped the island around like a bad banknote. By comparison with the architectural heritage of the mainland, Capri’s imperial overlords left scanty remains, with the spectacular exception of the emperor Tiberius, who ruled the Roman Empire from Capri during the last years of his reign. He built a vast palace atop the island’s highest cliff, but little of it has survived except brick arches and ramparts. The tiny municipal museum in Capri village just manages to fill two rooms, and the most interesting objects there are fossils. With the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, Capri became a part of the newly created Kingdom of Italy, but in name only. Setting aside the omnipresent Neapolitans, mainland Italians were only slightly less exotic in Capri than the foreign visitors.
Capri’s most valuable asset is intangible: its robust life as a symbol. Like any good symbol, it can be taken in many ways, but the island most often serves as an emblem of freedom. Since antiquity, Capri has been a hedonistic dreamland, a place where the rules do not apply: a Mediterranean prototype of Las Vegas. Twenty-two miles proved to be just far enough to liberate the island from the canting religious morality of Europe and the stern laws that came with it. For many of the artists who sought refuge there, Capri was still under the imperishable influence of its first foreign occupants, the Greeks: a relic of archaic Hellas, before the rise of the polis, with its demands on the citizen, where the individual lived in harmony with nature, saturated in sunlight between sky and sea. The promise of personal freedom brought with it a fantasy of pleasure without limit. In plain words, like Las Vegas, Capri got a reputation as a place where easy sex of every variety was available in abundance and not unduly fraught with consequences.
Capri did not give rise to a culture of its own: Las Vegas was built by gangsters, and Capri’s isolated situation made it a favorite haunt of pirates and smugglers, also not ordinarily known as patrons of the arts; the island never had a prince. The native population was too small, and paradoxically the island was too close to the mainland to nurture its own artistic traditions. There was never a Capriote style of pottery, no indigenous school of lyrical poetry. Foreign visitors brought their culture with them. In the nineteenth century, as the global economy transformed great swaths of northern Europe into industrial parks and poured smoke into urban skies, writers, artists, and other dreamers voyaged to distant island paradises described by early explorers and exploited in trashy fiction. Tahiti, Bali, and other tropical islands off the main trade routes promised a simple life, free from the material demands of the modern world. Capri radiated a similar primeval glamour and felt exotic, although it was near at hand. It was a place lost in time: even by the 1920s, telegrams and telephones were rare, and donkeys were the principal mode of transport.
The pursuit of freedom and pleasure that flourished in Capri was not entirely in service to the senses; it brought with it an alluring promise of unloosing creative powers. For an enchanted interlude that began in the Romantic era and lasted until the chaotic years after the Second World War, Capri was a haven for an international community of artists and writers, where anything was acceptable except the commonplace. The simplicity of life on the island made it dirt cheap, always an attraction for artists. German poets went there to write Greek poetry, American painters to paint French paintings, French writers to write English novels, and Russians to plot world revolution. The island’s history as a global nexus of artistic creativity may not be apparent to the millions of contemporary tourists who come for the views and the shopping, but it is an integral part of the island’s fabric. Even visitors who know nothing about Capri’s cultural history can feel the genius of the place. It is in the air, waiting to be discovered.
Norman Douglas, the British novelist and travel writer resident in Capri throughout the first half of the twentieth century, captured the intoxicating atmosphere of freedom that emanates from Capri’s pagan past, and its power to inspire the imagination, in his novel South Wind. Douglas’s mouthpiece, an antiquarian swindler, attempts to lure a visiting Anglican bishop from the straitened paths of righteousness. As they bask in the glow of a summer sunset, sitting on a terrace high above the Gulf of Naples, he declares that in Capri “the sage surrenders his intelligence and grows young again. He recaptures the spirit of his boyish dreams. He peers into worlds unknown. See! Adventure and discovery are lurking on every side. These painted clouds with their floating banners and citadels, yonder mysterious headlands that creep into the landscape at this hour, those islets emerging, like flakes of bronze, out of the sunset-glow—all the wonder of The Odyssey is there!”
Notwithstanding its rhapsodic tone, Douglas’s homage has a firm textual basis. The dream of Capri began in The Odyssey, with a myth about the perils of beauty. In book 12, Odysseus endures one of his most dangerous trials when he sails past the island of the Sirens, horrid bird-women whose surpassingly beautiful song lures mariners to ruin on the dangerous shores of their frightful lair. Homer describes it as a small island topped by a flowery meadow, bestrewn with the bleached bones of the Sirens’ victims. Wily Odysseus, as everyone knows, was the first and only mortal to hear the Sirens sing and live to tell the tale. He ordered his crew to bind him fast to the mast and plug their own ears with wax. When the ship approached, the Sirens broke into their delicious, deceitful chant: “Come hither, renowned Odysseus, and hear our song, for never yet has anyone rowed past this isle in his black ship without stopping to hear our sweet voices and going away a happier and wiser man. We know everything the Greeks and Trojans suffered at the hands of the gods in the wide plains of Troy, and all things that come to pass upon the all-nourishing earth.”
The location of the Sirens’ island is a perennial enigma, amusing to ponder because it is insoluble. A prime contender by tradition is Li Galli, a cluster of islets off the Amalfi Coast that formerly called themselves the Sirenuse, as if to endow their claim to ancient notoriety with preemptive clout. However, they are little more than big rocks, with no place that could have sheltered a flowery meadow, the only physical feature specified in Homer’s poem. In 1924, the Russian dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine took possession of Gallo Lungo, the largest of the islets, and built a villa there, which Le Corbusier later renovated. After Massine’s death, Rudolf Nureyev bought it and spent the last years of his life there in sybaritic seclusion.
Yet few would challenge Capri’s claim, supported by centuries of cheap souvenirs, to be the Siren Island. Anyway, it can never be disproved; for the rhapsodes who chanted The Odyssey, the islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea were remote, legendary places that only venturesome sailors had ever seen. A noncanonical Homeric myth adds corroboration to Capri’s claim. After Odysseus eluded the Sirens’ claws, one of them, named Parthenope, was so despondent that she drowned herself. Her body washed ashore on the little island of Megaride, just off the mainland across the bay, and the city of Naples was founded on the spot, now occupied by the Castel dell’Ovo. When French revolutionary forces liberated Naples from the tyranny of the Bourbons, in 1799, they renamed the city after the Siren from Capri. The Parthenopean Republic lasted only six months, but modern Neapolitans still call their city la città Partenopea.
Capri’s first appearance in history, as opposed to myth, is also touched by magic. In 29 B.C., when Octavian (soon to take the title Augustus) was cruising home to Rome to celebrate his victory over Antony and Cleopatra and take possession of his empire, he stopped at Capri and fell in love with the place. In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius reports that when the young conqueror passed by a withered oak tree, its drooping branches miraculously recovered their vitality. Delighted by this propitious omen, he promptly bought the island from Naples and thereby set the paradigm for many future visitors who came to Capri on a holiday and found that they could not leave.
Augustus coined a Greek nickname for Capri, Apragopolis, which might be translated as the Land of Doing Nothing—a classical prototype of dolce far niente, “how sweet to do nothing,” Italy’s unofficial motto. He built the island’s first holiday villa on a rugged strip of seashore at the foot of a cliff near the Marina Grande. Augustus despised excessive luxury, preferring modest palaces (a quintessentially Augustan paradox), which, according to Suetonius, “were adorned not so much with sculpture and painting as with colonnaded terraces and ornamental groves, and things that were curious either for their antiquity or rarity, such as, in Capri, the gigantic limbs of monsters and wild beasts, which were called the bones of giants, and the weapons of famous heroes.” In modern times, Suetonius got a reputation as an unreliable historian, and his report of Augustus’s cabinet of curiosities in Capri was cited as an example of his penchant for exaggeration.
Yet in 1906, when the foundations were being dug for an expansion of the Quisisana Hotel, in Capri village, Neolithic tools and the fossil remains of Pleistocene fauna such as the mastodon and pygmy elephants and hippopotamuses were unearthed, which gave Suetonius’s claim a measure of credibility. Norman Douglas plausibly called the emperor’s collection “the first paleontological museum in the world.” The French archaeologist Salomon Reinach speculated that the weapons of famous heroes in Augustus’s collection might be identified with the flint axes excavated at the Quisisana dig, but it is doubtful whether the emperor would have been impressed by such crude artifacts. It is just as reasonable to conjecture that unscrupulous dealers duped the emperor into buying bogus relics of the Trojan War.
When Augustus fell sick at Rome with a chill that would be the cause of his death (unless you believe the ancient gossip that his wife, Livia, smeared poison on the figs in his garden), he made a final visit to Capri for a four-day holiday cure, where he gave himself up to rest and relaxation. The emperor loved romping with the island’s boys. On this visit, as usual, he spent hours watching them exercise and wrestle at the ephebeum, the gym for ephebes, the Greek word for adolescents at the threshold of manhood. He entertained the young athletes at a banquet, where he played games with them, tossing fruit and trinkets to the winners. He had cloaks made as party favors, in the Greek style for the Italians and Roman togas for the Greeks, and insisted that the Greeks speak Latin and the Romans speak Greek. On his fourth day in Capri, he took a turn for the worse and returned to Rome, where he summoned his stepson Tiberius, who would succeed him, for a long meeting behind closed doors. After that, Augustus took no further interest in affairs of state and died a few days later.
* * *
THE PALPITATING HEART of Capri village is the Piazzetta, at the junction of the road from the Marina Grande, the upper terminus of the funicular that rises from the shore, and the footpath to the island’s northeastern tip, where Tiberius built his palace, Villa Jovis (House of Jove). Piazzetta is an appropriate diminutive of piazza. In the high season, when the tiny square’s four competing cafés set out their outdoor tables, pedestrians must jostle one another to thread a path to the other side. No one complains: in southern Italy, jostling and being jostled is viewed as a stimulating pastime more than a nuisance. Overhead, strings of little white lights crisscross the square, twinkling in the briny air. On special nights when semiprofessional programs of opera arias and Neapolitan songs are performed, the Piazzetta achieves its destined metamorphosis into a stage set for a comic operetta, the metaphor employed by every writer who has undertaken to describe it.
On the south side of the Piazzetta, the island’s parish church of Santo Stefano sits haughtily atop a flight of stone stairs, with its entrance at an oblique angle to the square. The church had the status of a cathedral until the Parthenopean Republic abolished the island’s bishopric. The steps leading up to Santo Stefano are always crowded with footsore tourists sitting in front of signs asking them not to do so. The almost painfully picturesque bell tower that calls the faithful to the celebration of the Mass is detached from the church, located just opposite, at the main entrance to the square. A kiosk at its base sells soccer newspapers and toys. The priest of Santo Stefano, Don Vincenzo Simeoli, is one of the most popular personalities in the village. Strolling across the Piazzetta with him, one proceeds slowly as he stops to greet parishioners who call out his name respectfully when he passes by.
Almost nothing remains of Augustus’s Palazzo a Mare, but if anyone has a claim to being its caretaker, that would be Don Vincenzo. When I met him in the sacristy of Santo Stefano, he told me that he had collected more than three thousand fragments of the emperor’s Villa by the Sea in his garden and the fields surrounding the Marina Grande, the site of the island’s earliest settlement. Most of them are tiny scraps of marble and mural painting or single mosaic tesserae. “I have a large family,” he explained, “and all my life they have been bringing me pieces for my collection.” When I asked him if I could see it, he solemnly shook his head. “No one knows where I keep it,” he said. “I keep everything locked up. According to the law, whoever finds ancient relics owns them, but I am responsible for them. If someone stole them, I would go to jail.” The prospect of Don Vincenzo being sent to jail seemed remote, but I didn’t press the point. He gave me a tour of Santo Stefano, pointing out the brilliantly colored marble pavements that came from Villa Jovis. When I took my leave, Don Vincenzo invited me to take a tour of Augustus’s Villa by the Sea. “I will meet you at San Costanzo tomorrow afternoon at four,” he said, “unless someone dies and I have to perform a funeral.”
Deo gratias the health of the parish remained sound, and Don Vincenzo turned up on time at the Basilica of San Costanzo, the oldest church in Capri. It was built in the fourth century on the site of a Mithraic temple. The cult of Mithras, a mystery religion of Persian origin, was established in Rome during the early empire and quickly found a passionate following, particularly with soldiers. Membership was men only. The cult, unencumbered by any sort of philosophy, put a strong emphasis on animal sacrifice, specifically bulls, in subterranean rites. The appeal was magical and therefore theatrical, with spooky rituals that drenched the celebrants in buckets of blood. Don Vincenzo points out a few columns in the basilica that survive from the original structure and then leads me to the crude brick annex that covers the site of the mithraeum, which is nothing more than a hole in the ground. Then we set off to see what there is to see of Augustus’s palace.
Slim and fit, with roses blooming in his cheeks and a thick brush of white hair, Don Vincenzo is in his early seventies but looks much younger. He springs up and down the crude stone stairs cut in the hillside with easy grace. We pass an imposing mansion painted Pompeii red behind high walls, which he says occupies the site of a villa that Tiberius built to complement that of Augustus on the shore below. When I ask Don Vincenzo who lives there now, he gives me a canny glance and rubs his thumb against his fingertips: a rich man. As we descend to the sea, he confidently points out which bits of stone wall are Augustan and which are not. Don Vincenzo himself restored the arches that supported the ancient road leading to the Bagni di Tiberio, the Baths of Tiberius. In the niches, he installed the pride of his collection, a Greek amphora dating to the fifth century B.C., and in the adjoining arch a marble bust of Augustus looking young and handsome, which he commissioned from a sculptor in Naples.
The only structural remains of the Palazzo a Mare are a brick wall abutting the cliff, twenty feet high, with a series of vaulted recesses, the remnants of private chambers. True to Suetonius’s description, the living quarters were modest in size. The villa was sited bang on the sea’s edge, so its terraces must have been washed by waves when the sea was rough. In the shallows directly in front of it, a modern stone breakwater creates a calm, shallow tidal pool where children can splash in safety on fine days and small boats are moored during a storm. Near the fragmentary ruins of the villa, there is a row of private changing rooms and a trattoria called Bagni Tiberio, which is owned by Don Vincenzo’s nephew Peppino.
At the conclusion of our tour, Don Vincenzo brings me to his house, a trim white frame cottage midway along the Roman road to San Costanzo. The house is surrounded by a small vineyard, where he raises grapes from vines that he discovered when he was digging his garden. He believes they are relics of Augustus’s own vineyard. Proudly, he says, “I make wine from the vines of the imperatore.”
* * *
WE FEEL THAT we know Augustus, but Tiberius, his successor, presents a dark, shape-shifting enigma as elusive as the Sirens. If the phrase fits anyone, Augustus was a Great Man of History, possessed by unbounded ambition, which wrought the empire that dominated Europe and the Mediterranean for a millennium. He ruled with ruthless resolve, yet his triumph owed as much to his personal charm as to military genius and statecraft. In his personal habits, he was a man of simple tastes with a passion for gardening who preached and practiced the homely virtues of family life. Augustus was adored by the soldiers who marched to his orders and revered by the Roman people, who made a god of him long before his posthumous deification by a decree of the Senate. Tiberius was his bipolar opposite, a gloomy, secretive monarch who ascended to the throne with obvious reluctance. He was a brilliant general with a distaste for political intrigue, at least in the beginning of his career, who was propelled to power by his mother, the formidable Livia. As emperor, Tiberius was as irresolute as his predecessor was decisive, incapable of taking any action until he had sought the advice of everyone around him. Pliny the Elder called him tristissimus hominum, saddest of men.
It is impossible to make an objective assessment of the personality and reign of Tiberius, because the surviving sources of information are biased and unreliable and conflict with one another about everything except the bare facts. Among those, none was more influential to the course of history than Tiberius’s decision in A.D. 26 to move from Rome to Capri. It was unprecedented. Norman Douglas wrote, “For the first time, the center of the world was displaced, the spell of the Eternal City broken.” It was a wobble in imperial history that set the precedent for future dislocations of the seat of power, to Milan, Ravenna, Nicomedia, and finally Byzantium. Augustus was enchanted by the Siren Island and visited it often throughout his long life, but Tiberius’s move to Capri was permanent: the Gulf of Naples was his Rubicon in reverse. He ruled the world from Villa Jovis, his palace overlooking the gulf, until his death more than ten years later. This final phase of his life dominated his reputation for posterity, and the reports of Tiberius’s residency in Capri also had a potent influence on the island’s own reputation.
The principal historians of the early empire, Tacitus and Suetonius, paint a lurid portrait of a depraved monster governed by irrational cruelty and perverted sexual appetites. Tacitus, much the more esteemed of the two by his contemporaries and modern historians, wrote his Annals eighty years after Tiberius’s death. Like most intellectuals of his era, he deplored the monarchy and nurtured a hopeless dream of restoring the republic that had ruled Rome for centuries until the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. The god Augustus was untouchable, commanding respect even after his death, so Tacitus poured his republican convictions into his chronicle of the second emperor’s reign. He wrote that Tiberius’s professed reason for moving to Capri was a desire to escape the rancorous intrigues of the capital, in particular the relentless scheming of his domineering mother, but “for the most part I am moved to ascribe the motive of his removal more truly to his cruelty and lust, which his actions proclaimed even as he concealed them in a distant place.”
Tacitus has nothing but praise for Capri itself. In the Annals, the historian is absorbed by the foibles and follies of his imperial subjects and takes but little interest in writing descriptions of places that his readers would have known for themselves. Capri elicited the only description of a landscape that survives in his long book:
The solitude of the place was, I believe, what pleased [Tiberius] most. It is surrounded by a harborless sea with few places of refuge for even the meanest vessels, and no one can land there and escape the notice of a practiced lookout. The air in winter is soft, for the island is protected from the fury of the winds by a mountain. In the summertime, the West Wind wafts it, and the open sea all around it makes it a pleasant place. Moreover, it commands the most beautiful view of the bay, at least before flaming Mount Vesuvius altered the appearance of the coast.
Tacitus’s description is still a concise, accurate geographic survey of Capri. After Tiberius moved there, Tacitus says, he built a dozen villas, each dedicated to a sign of the zodiac, implying that he moved from one palace to the next following the astrological calendar. This aspect of Tacitus’s history is probably apocryphal, or heavily embroidered: the remains of his residence in Damecuta, at the island’s western end, suggest that it was a large, lavish palace, and tradition supports the previous existence of a villa above Augustus’s Palazzo a Mare, on a site now occupied by a rich man’s house, but no trace of the other palaces survives either in stone or in legend, as one would expect of “huge villas.” Virtually every event in the historical record of Tiberius’s reign takes place at Villa Jovis.
From a diplomatic and military perspective, Tiberius was a successful monarch, who strengthened Rome’s control of distant provinces and extended its reach. For most citizens of the empire, it was a prosperous time, and even his sternest critics begrudgingly credit him with being just and generous in his dealings with plebeians. The historians’ most interesting material was the ceaseless cycle of murderous intrigues in the capital. One after another Tiberius discovered (or was persuaded to find) traitors in the Senate, the army, and his own family who were subjected to show trials and sentenced to banishment or execution by enforced suicide. Many of these inquisitions were instigated by his chief adviser, Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, whom Tiberius called his socius laborum, the partner in his toils. Tiberius eventually turned over most of the day-to-day tasks of running the imperial city to him. Sejanus consolidated his control over the suspicious, vacillating monarch by turning him against anyone who stood in the way of his own ambition, which aimed at nothing less than the throne. After the death of Drusus, Tiberius’s son and heir (probably as the result of poisoning by his wife, whom Sejanus had seduced), the emperor wearied of Rome and made his move to Capri, leaving his treacherous helpmate to rule in his place.
It was not the first time Tiberius had run away from Rome. Early in his career, after Augustus made him supreme commander of the Eastern Empire, in 6 B.C., he announced an abrupt retirement from public life, at the age of thirty-six, and moved to Rhodes. The decision was probably motivated at least in part by a desire to escape his miserable marriage to Julia, Augustus’s daughter. Tiberius adored his first wife, Vipsania, but Augustus forced him to divorce her and marry his only natural child while she was still in mourning for her husband, Agrippa. Julia was spoiled and headstrong and by every account unrestrained in her quest of sexual adventure. Everyone in Rome except her father knew that she was sleeping with many of the empire’s most powerful men. After Augustus found out about her wanton sex life, he ordered a divorce in Tiberius’s name and exiled her to the tiny islet of Pandateria, where she was deprived of wine and the company of any men except eunuchs until her death. Tacitus suggests that Tiberius’s early, short-lived retirement from public life might have been a sort of trial run of the Orgy in Capri: “In the years that he went into exile in Rhodes under the guise of retirement, he had no other thoughts than meditating wrath, hypocrisy, and secret sensuality.”
Once Tiberius had installed himself in Villa Jovis, after he finally learned the full extent of Sejanus’s treachery, he ordered him to be arrested by the very Praetorian Guards that were supposed to be under Sejanus’s direct control, a deft stroke that rooted out every vestige of Sejanus’s shadow regime. Everyone related to him was executed. A notorious detail of this bloody purge is the execution of the traitor’s young children. To satisfy the demands of the convention that children be exempted from execution, the boy was dressed in the toga virilis, the emblem of manhood, before his throat was cut, and the little girl was raped by a guard before she was murdered, to avoid the damnable sin of killing a virgin.
Suetonius records that the emperor received the news of the executions at Villa Jovis, where he kept “a constant watch from the highest cliffs for the signals he had ordered to be raised on the mainland.” Sixteen centuries before the first telescopes, such signals could only have been transmitted by beacons or perhaps smoke signals. This passage has excited scholarly speculation about how Tiberius was able to rule the empire from such an isolated place. The most obvious explanation would be fires lit at nighttime, which could be used to send messages, perhaps employing a prototype of Morse code. One modern military historian has mooted the possibility that the Romans developed an early heliograph, creating a bright flash on a large reflective surface that was visible in daytime.
Even after the massacre of Sejanus and his ilk, which left the capital in turmoil, Tiberius did not budge from his island retreat. He made occasional forays to the mainland of Campania, but never again entered the city of Rome. What kept him in Capri, which for all its natural beauty is a small island, is one of the murkiest of the Tiberian enigmas. Tacitus’s sensational explanation is that the monarch, now in his seventies, was so much given over to cruelty and sexual lust that he had lost touch with the realities of empire: “The more intent he had formerly been upon public cares, he became now so much the more buried in dark debauches.” Maliciously, he adds that Tiberius might also have been prompted to live in solitude because he was embarrassed by his appearance; although he had a handsome figure, he was bald and his face was disfigured by erupting cankers, which he covered with plasters.
Tacitus was a serious writer, a master rhetorician famed for the symmetry and high polish of his prose. He evoked a sense of terror in his narrative not with graphic shocks but rather with dark insinuations that left the details to his reader’s imagination. He leaves his indictment of Tiberius’s cruelty deliberately vague. Suetonius, on the other hand, is explicit, and glories in the gory details. His recital of horrors is extensive. One famous passage describes the Salto di Tiberio, Tiberius’s Leap: “In Capri, they point out the scene of his executions, from which he used to command those condemned to die, after long and exquisite tortures, to leap into the sea before his eyes. Below, his marines battered the bodies of the victims with pikes to ensure that no breath of life remained, and then shoved the bodies back into the sea.” The Salto di Tiberio is the steepest cliff on the island, a principal feature of boat excursions for modern tourists, whose guides recite Suetonius’s tale, just as he predicted they would. One of Tiberius’s favorite tortures, according to Suetonius, was to profess friendship with the victim and encourage him to drink enormous quantities of wine; then, before the man had a chance to urinate, guards would seize him and tie up his penis with a cord, preventing him from purging his bladder.
Tacitus also enforces a decorous vagueness in his descriptions of the emperor’s sexual perversions. This passage is the closest he comes to a pornographic description of Tiberius’s orgy:
Like a royal despot, he defiled and committed outrages on freeborn youths. His lust was excited not only by a beautiful face and a graceful body but also in some cases by their youthful innocence and in others by noble ancestry. At this time words came into use that were previously unknown, the Sellarii and Spintriae, one expressing the filthiness of the place and the other the manifold postures and methods of buggery.1 Slaves were charged with procuring and bringing youths to service him, with gifts for the willing and threats against the recalcitrant; and if their parents or guardians put up resistance, the young people were taken forcibly, and the procurers satisfied their own desires with them, as if they were prisoners of war.
In his treatment of sex, too, Suetonius is compendious with anecdotes and graphic in detail. Here, he describes the spintriae: “On retiring to Capri, [Tiberius] devised a rural pavilion for his secret orgies, where bands of girls and male favorites who had distinguished themselves as experts in unnatural intercourse, called spintriae, copulated in triple unions in his presence, to excite his flagging lust.” Some passages approach buffoonery, such as his description of groves in the garden of Villa Jovis that were fitted out as mock temples of prostitution, where the youthful talent were costumed as little Pans and nymphs. Suetonius has the irritating habit of feigning disgust at what he clearly relishes and pretending reluctance to come out and say what he is eager to tell:
[Tiberius’s] infamy proclaimed itself with even grosser depravities, so flagrant one can scarcely bear to report or hear them, or even to believe them, such as the children of the tenderest age, whom he called his little fishes, trained to swim between his thighs, licking and nibbling him as they swirled about in the water; and the babies, robust yet still unweaned, whom he brought to his penis as if it were a mother’s teat, for they were surely more apt to enjoy this sort of pleasure by nature at their age.
As Suetonius concedes, difficult to believe. Yet throughout most of the nearly two thousand years since the histories of Tacitus and Suetonius were published, the scandals were widely accepted and repeated. “Tiberius in Capri” was universal shorthand for excessive, perverted sexual license and brutal cruelty.
Gilles de Rais, the fifteenth-century serial killer who confessed to sodomizing, torturing, and murdering a large number of youths, perhaps hundreds of them, ranging in age from six to eighteen, said at his trial that he was inspired to commit the crimes after reading Suetonius’s biography of Tiberius. A marshal of France who fought beside Joan of Arc, Gilles also had an element of Nero, the megalomaniac artist, in his character. He wrote a mystery play about Joan’s triumph at the Siege of Orléans that was twenty thousand verses long, with 120 speaking parts and an army of extras. Gilles’s homicidal rampage originated in an obsession with the occult. On one occasion, when he performed a Black Mass, the demon he was trying to summon demanded the body parts of children as the price for making an appearance. The accounts of torture and mayhem that came out at Gilles’s trial make gruesome reading; the most horrible aspect of his crimes was their psychological cruelty. Like Tiberius, he delighted in feigning friendship with his victims in the beginning, treating them to gifts at a lavish banquet in order to intensify their shock when he revealed his true purpose. In his confession, he said that he would sit on the stomach of the child after he had cut his throat, for the thrill of watching him die.
Tiberius’s orgy in Capri, even more than the madness of Caligula and Nero, created the paradigm of imperial wickedness. In the Renaissance, the histories of Tacitus and Suetonius were the primary sources of information about the early empire and an integral part of the curriculum at schools and colleges. In his tragedy Sejanus, His Fall, Ben Jonson, most learned of the Elizabethan poets, closely paraphrases Tacitus in his description of Tiberius’s life in Capri:
He hath his boys, and beauteous girls ta’en up,
Out of the noblest houses, the best formed,
Best nurtured, and most modest: What’s their good,
Serves to provoke his bad …
[and] dealt away
unto his spintries, sellaries, and slaves,
Masters of strange and new-commented lusts,
For which wise nature hath not left a name.
Milton’s readers required only a brief allusion to bring the Roman histories to mind. In Paradise Regained, Satan tempts Christ with earthly powers, chief among them the opportunity to expel Tiberius from his throne and restore Rome to greatness:
This Emperor hath no son, and now is old;
Old and lascivious: and from Rome retir’d
To Capreae, an island small, but strong,
On the Campanian shore, with purpose there,
His horrid lusts in private to enjoy.
Charles Dunster, the editor of an edition of Paradise Regained published in 1795, footnoted this passage, “The accuracy and historical correctness, with which the character of Tiberius is here drawn, is well worth noticing,” and adduced long quotations from Tacitus and Suetonius to support the assertion. Yet Dunster was already old-fashioned: skepticism about the canonical historians had taken hold in France before the Revolution.
One of the earliest works of fiction inspired by the Orgy in Capri was written by a writer who campaigned against belief in anything at all except the flesh, the Marquis de Sade, “the only writer who will never lose the power to shock us,” as Francine du Plessix Gray wrote. None of his works is more shocking than his novel Juliette, which was published anonymously at the end of the eighteenth century, as the sequel to Justine. In Justine, subtitled The Misfortunes of Virtue, the heroine undergoes unspeakable torments and humiliations as a result of her virtuous behavior; in Juliette, Justine’s wicked sister abandons every conceivable norm of human decency with joyous abandon. She and her demonic companion Clairwil go on a rampage that decants buckets of sperm and oceans of blood across Europe, and Tiberius is frequently invoked as an inspiration for their adventures. Rape, torture, infanticide, mass murder, and cannibalism are elaborated in phantasmagoric and ultimately monotonous variations. Juliette is not pornographic in the conventional sense; only a monster like Gilles de Rais could find the book sexually arousing. For most readers of any era, the book is a violent assault on the imagination and the gut, punctuated by philosophical digressions that anticipate the intellectual revolutions that would have respectable triumphs by the end of the nineteenth century.
Juliette and Clairwil’s visit to Capri is a relatively subdued idyll, coming immediately after an orgy with Ferdinand, king of Naples, and his queen, Marie-Caroline, Marie Antoinette’s sister. The latter has intercourse with a group of men as she watches the decapitation of a twelve-year-old girl she has just raped, an obscene burlesque of her sister’s recent execution. As it did Tacitus, Capri inspired the Marquis de Sade to undertake an unwonted exercise in descriptive geography, a concise profile of the island’s topography that appears to have been based upon his notes from a series of visits to Italy in the 1770s, after he was convicted in France and sentenced to death in absentia for poisoning prostitutes, sodomy, and other crimes.
Sade’s description of the Villa Jovis has the ring of an eyewitness observation, even as it refers to a familiar passage in Suetonius: “The palace is perched on the tip of a rock rising so far above the water that the eye can barely discern the fishermen’s boats moored below. That particular palace served as the theater for his most piquant lewd revels,” in particular ordering children of both sexes to be flung to their deaths from the cliff “once they were of no further use to his lust.” Clairwil rhapsodizes on the orgasms the emperor must have experienced as he watched his victims plummet to their deaths and makes a proposal. “Oh, dear angel,” says Clairwil, hugging Juliette, “he was a voluptuous rascal, that Tiberius. What if we were to look for something to throw off this precipice as the Emperor used to do?”
As always, a perfect victim is close at hand, an innocent young goatherd who tells them that she is the sole support of her invalid mother. Clairwil is all for tossing the girl from the Salto di Tiberio straightaway, but Juliette restrains her, saying, “I am dreadfully curious to know how this child is made: health, freshness, innocence glow in her young charms: it would be ridiculous not to divert ourselves with them.” Their diversion consists of collecting the girl’s hymen with a pointed rock, flaying her with brambles, and finally tying her to the goat and throwing them off the precipice into the sea. Their pleasure is enhanced by the knowledge that the loss of the goat ensures that the sickly mother will soon die of starvation. “That is how I like my horrors,” Juliette declares, “either make them thorough and extensive, or refrain from undertaking them at all.”
Then the fiendish pair stroll down to the village and present the governor of the island with a letter from King Ferdinand commanding him to provide them with virgins to defile. The governor regretfully informs the women that they must pay: he himself enjoys an orgy from time to time, he says, but finds little opportunity for it, because Capri is ill-supplied with prostitutes “and precious few idlers or valets.” So the women give him a sack of gold to procure three girls and three healthy lads, and after an all-night orgy they embark on a sightseeing cruise before their return to Naples. They stop at Herculaneum and observe the ongoing excavation of the ruins, which had begun thirty years before Sade’s visit.
Doubts about the authority of Tacitus began, as many doubts did, with Voltaire, who described him as “a fanatic sparkling with wit,” adept at withering abuse but deficient in facts. With the rise of skepticism about the Roman historian, Tiberius’s reputation too began to rise. Some of the emperor’s early advocates were scarcely more credible than boosters such as Gilles de Rais and the Marquis de Sade. In 1813, John Rendle, a mathematics don at Cambridge, published a spirited if demented defense entitled The History of That Inimitable Monarch Tiberius. He makes some strong arguments, starting with a detailed compendium of quotations from authors contemporary with Tiberius’s reign or immediately after it, who praise him as a wise, just monarch and do not mention the Orgy in Capri. After the collapse of the amphitheater at Fidenae, in A.D. 27, the deadliest stadium disaster in ancient history, in which fifty thousand spectators died (according to Tacitus), Tiberius rushed to the scene and personally assisted in the rescue effort. At this point Rendle goes off the rails and asserts that by the time of this disaster Tiberius had converted to Christianity. He offers no proof of this ridiculous claim and concludes that the principal lessons to be learned from the life of Tiberius are “that the first Pope was an arch-impostor” and that Catholics are “dangerous heretics.”
* * *
TIBERIUS NEVER HAD a more zealous advocate than Thomas Spencer Jerome, a lawyer from Detroit who bought a villa in Capri on his first visit to the island, in 1899. He lived in it until his death in 1914, laboring on a treatise that would exonerate Tiberius of the crimes ascribed to him by the imperial historians. In Vestal Fire, a satirical roman à clef about the expatriate colony in Capri (called Sirene in the novel), Compton Mackenzie paints an affectionately mocking portrait of the eccentric American, in the character of John Scudamore. For years, Mackenzie wrote, “foreigners had been coming to Sirene and there been seized with a passion to prove that Suetonius and Tacitus had monstrously slandered Tiberius. They had remained on the island for years, some of them, working away with fanatical industry at his whitewashing. When Scudamore arrived the time was ripe for another coat.”
Jerome’s plea for the emperor was passionate but based upon a wide reading of classical literature and existing critiques by skeptical German classicists and sharpened by his legal training. He directs most of his analysis against Tacitus, the revered master, and scarcely mentions Suetonius, who wrote, at least in part, to titillate his readers. Like Rendle, Jerome offers a compendious résumé of admiring reports by Tiberius’s near contemporaries, such as Plutarch, who, though “possessed of much fondness for castigating vice,” wrote that the monarch “passed the last seven years [sic] of his life on the island of Capri, and that sacred governing spirit which sways the whole universe and was inclosed as it were in his breast, never in that time changed its residence.” Even Juvenal, “avid of scandal and exuberant in biting phrase,” Jerome wrote, “attributes to him no worse companions than astrologers, and with tame and unaccustomed blandiloquence characterizes his later years as a ‘tranquil old age.’”
Jerome’s most powerful argument is the disparity, apparent to every reader of the Annals, between the historian’s assertions of Tiberius’s vicious behavior in private and the appearance of virtue in his public actions, bolstered by the uniformly admiring testimony of witnesses. Jerome’s damning case in point is Tacitus’s claim that Tiberius was savage and cruel in his exercise of the emperor’s privilege to order the execution of his enemies, which resembled “a wave of blood through the houses of Rome, or the hand of a butcher.” Yet, in Jerome’s reading, “the cases on which these charges are based, and Tacitus claims to report them fully,” amount to “about one execution per annum on all sorts of charges,” which included the atrocious retribution against Sejanus—who was, after all, plotting a violent coup d’état and perhaps even the assassination of the emperor.
At a scholarly conference in London, in 1913, Jerome read a paper entitled “The Orgy of Tiberius on Capri,” which opens with a passage from a speech that the emperor delivered to the Senate a year before his move to Capri, in reply to an embassy from Spain that sought to erect a temple in honor of himself and his mother deified. It is one of the longest extracts of Tiberius’s own expression extant and suggests that if his memoirs had survived, posterity might have had a quite different impression of him. The emperor concludes,
I declare unto you that I am no more than mortal and do but discharge the duties of a man; that it suffices me if I fill worthily the principal place among you—this I would have remembered by those who live after me. Enough, and more than enough, will they render to my memory, if they judge me to have been worthy of my ancestors, watchful of their interests, unflinching in danger, and fearless of enmities in defense of the public weal. These are the temples I would erect in your hearts, these are the fairest images and such as will best endure.
Tiberius’s successors would have been incapable of such plainspoken humility, even in the service of duplicity. Like a skilled lawyer addressing the jury, Jerome uses the passage to great effect, comparing Tiberius’s modest aspirations for his reputation with the posthumous infamy brought upon him by Tacitus.
Some of Jerome’s arguments are not as convincing as he hopes. For example, he asserts that Tiberius’s sexual adventures in Capri, as represented by Tacitus, are “a highly improbable performance for a septuagenarian to keep up for eleven years.” However, the detailed descriptions of deviant sex are the work of Suetonius, not Tacitus, and none of the strenuous activities are ascribed to the emperor himself; he is a voyeur. Jerome’s Latin is fallible: he offers a scornful criticism of the infamous passage from Suetonius quoted above, about the obscene weaning of babies and the bathing pool with children nibbling the imperial thighs, on account of the impossibility of “the natatory exploits of suckling infants, whose relatively large skulls however would preclude their swimming.” The size of the infantile skull is just one of many reasons that babies do not swim, but in any case Suetonius clearly presents the two charges as separate, and Jerome has confused them. The “little fishes” who frolicked in the pool with the emperor, according to Suetonius, are pueri, children up to the age of adolescence, not babies.
What really went on at Villa Jovis? Despite his occasional lapses in scholarship and habitual excess of enthusiasm, Thomas Jerome makes a persuasive case that Tacitus’s lurid tales of the paranoid, bloodthirsty monarch, driven by perverted lust, are insubstantial. Jerome’s conclusions have been supported by most (though not all) modern historians, yet the legend of the orgy endures: the stories are just too sensational to die. Jerome notes with majestic, polysyllabic scorn, “As long as hypocritical pruriency demands an opportunity to glut its appetite for the lascivious under the guise of an interest in history, it needs the old story of Tiberius’ Orgy, consecrated by the affection of ancestral concupiscence and fortified by the approval of contemporaneous lubricity.”
The enduring image of Tiberius for contemporary English speakers is the portrait of him in Robert Graves’s novel I, Claudius, which draws heavily on Suetonius, and the BBC adaptation of the book, with George Baker’s memorable portrayal of the emperor as a weakling with putrid skin and scanty hair, always exasperated by his monstrous mother, the story’s villainess. Both Graves and the BBC script, by Jack Pulman, omit the emperor’s riotous years in Capri, presumably because British readers in 1934 and television viewers in 1976 were not as receptive to scenes of raunchy sex as were the readers of imperial annals in the second century.
Yet the question persists: Was Tiberius an upright moralist, as Jerome believed, or the wicked sensualist of the imperial histories? The correct answer is the unsatisfying one that applies to most controversies of antiquity: we shall never know. Even if a bombshell scroll were to turn up, it could only complicate the mystery. The admiring portraits of Tiberius are just as likely to be faulty as the salacious slanders. If the emperor in his old age, weary of the responsibilities of supreme power, and released from the need to set a moral example in his retirement in Capri, took his pleasure by watching adolescents perform sexual acrobatics, it does not strain credulity.
Thomas Jerome’s life began as the pattern of elite midwestern dullness in the Gilded Age. Born into the high society of Saginaw, Michigan, he was a sickly, bookish boy. When he was an undergraduate at the university in Ann Arbor, his father was elected governor of the state. After he received his bachelor’s degree, Jerome attended the university’s law school and went on to earn an M.A. at Harvard. At the age of twenty-three, he set up a law practice in Detroit that did not distract him from his principal profession as a cultured bachelor, with the prospect of a leisurely lifetime of feeding and drinking at private clubs and indulging his passion for Roman history.
Then he met Charles Lang Freer, from Kingston, New York, who had made a fortune in Detroit building railway cars, which enabled him to pursue his vocation of collecting art. Freer’s interests were divided between contemporary American painting, particularly the work of James McNeill Whistler, who would become a friend and confidant, and Asian art, which was almost unknown in America at that time. In his mid-forties, healthy and wealthy, Freer retired from the active management of his business affairs. The two intellectual bachelors became fast friends, and at century’s end they went on a European tour together, a pair of idle-rich American aesthetes in the Old World straight out of a novel by Henry James.
When they arrived in Capri, they joined a community of effete bachelors. The preposterously bearded painter Charles Caryl Coleman, a Civil War veteran from Buffalo, was the dean of the island’s expatriates. He arrived in Capri in 1870 and lived there until his death in 1928, in an extravagant mansion near the Piazzetta. Villa Narcissus united the enthusiasms of Jerome and Freer: a former convent Coleman had converted to a Moorish palace, it was cluttered with Roman marbles and mosaics, many of them dug up in the meadows of Capri, and a miscellany of Orientalia, including Chinese porcelain, Islamic textiles, and Japanese painted fans and scrolls. Coleman’s paintings exploited every cliché of the Aesthetic style, conversation pieces with generic Renaissance or classical settings and decorative still lifes that imitated Japanese woodcuts, but his specialty was views of Vesuvius. He produced hundreds of pastels of the volcano, which was perfectly framed in the window of his studio. E. F. Benson, the author of the satirical Mapp and Lucia novels, a seasonal resident of the island, offered this withering assessment of Coleman in his memoir: “His pictures—picturesque corners and rugged old fishermen—had (for me) the curious quality of looking like bad copies of first-rate work, and he himself, white-bearded and rather majestic in manner, looked like a bad copy of [Frederic] Lord Leighton,” the eminent society painter of classical scenes and president of the Royal Academy.
His neighbor just up the hill was a peripatetic alienist, Allan McLane Hamilton, a grandson and biographer of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was preparing to move to London, so his estate, Villa Castello, one of the most prestigious residences on the island, was for sale. Jerome and Freer decided to buy the house and settle down there. Inevitably, the nature of a friendship between two unmarried gentlemen, aged thirty-five (Jerome) and forty-five (Freer), who set up housekeeping together invites speculation, but their private lives are almost as elusive as that of Tiberius. Four years before they arrived in Capri, Oscar Wilde had been convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. As a result, homosexual relationships in this period were kept strictly private: the memory of Wilde’s love letters to “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas, his “gilt and graceful boy,” being read into the court record was still vivid and terrifying. We may be curious whether Jerome and Freer’s relationship was a romantic friendship or a sexual affair; a recent Italian biographer has argued it was the latter, but because the issue cannot be settled, it need not detain us.
Whatever the exact nature of their relationship, Villa Castello was a romantic setting for it, set atop a hillside rising to the Malerplatte (now the Belvedere Cannone), the Painters’ Plaza, so called because it was thronged by German amateur artists who went there to paint the spectacular panoramas. Hamilton wrote in his memoirs that the house, at least eight hundred years old, was built on a foundation of Cyclopean blocks of pink granite that predated the Roman era in Capri. “The rooms were lofty, and always full of fresh air, while in front was a large terrace that overlooked the entire Bay of Naples and the villages at the base of Vesuvius.” The previous resident, a mediocre British painter of classical scenes named Walter Anderson, had paved the floors with antique marble from Tiberius’s palaces. The garden was a pocket Eden, two acres of orange, lemon, mulberry, and fig trees and a grape arbor, shaded by feathery bamboo and parasol pines. “After I left,” wrote Hamilton, “an entire Roman room with frescoes in a perfect state was opened up by Mr. Thomas Jerome, the new tenant, and I myself often picked up fragments of Greek glass, once finding a terracotta mask of Medusa.”
Jerome and Freer decided to buy the estate and then went their separate ways, pledging to meet in Capri the following year. Coleman concluded the deal with Hamilton on their behalf. At home in Michigan, Jerome gave a farewell party at which he shocked his family and friends by announcing his intention to retire from the practice of law and move to Capri to write a history of Rome. He secured an appointment as the American consul at Sorrento, a post he managed to have transferred to Capri the following year. W. Somerset Maugham, who shared a fine house in the village called Villa Cercola with E. F. Benson and a ne’er-do-well dilettante named John Ellingham Brooks, wrote a fanciful short story about Jerome’s magnificent midlife crisis. The story, entitled “Mayhew,” also the name of the character based on Jerome, begins in Detroit:
One evening he was sitting in his club with a group of friends and they were perhaps a little worse (or the better) for liquor. One of them had recently come from Italy and he told them of a house he had seen at Capri, a house on the hill, overlooking the Bay of Naples, with a large and shady garden. He described to them the beauty of the most beautiful island in the Mediterranean.
“It sounds fine,” said Mayhew. “Is that house for sale?”
“Everything is for sale in Italy.”
“Let’s send ’em a cable and make an offer for it.”
“What in heaven’s name would you do with a house in Capri?”
“Live in it,” said Mayhew.
As so often, Maugham is writing a fable on his favorite theme of personal freedom. He states his message plainly in the opening paragraph of the story: “I am fascinated by the men, few enough in all conscience, who take life in their own hands and seem to mold it to their own liking. It may be that we have no such thing as free will, but at all events we have the illusion of it.”
Maugham had met John Brooks, ten years his elder, when he was a sixteen-year-old student at Heidelberg University. Brooks was his first lover and intellectual mentor. The sexual affair had ended by 1895, when the two men came to Capri for the first time. Maugham was struggling to reckon with his homosexual inclination, as he would do all his life. Brooks and Benson were not struggling, and there was a steady traffic of local boys coming to Villa Cercola. It is unclear whether Maugham availed himself of their services, but he was impressed by the openness of his housemates. In his story, Capri represents a zone of individual liberty, outside the strictures of social conformity.
When Freer returned to Capri for his rendezvous with Jerome, a shock awaited him: Jerome had brought with him a woman from Detroit. Henrietta Sophia Rupp, known as Yetta, was ostensibly Jerome’s housekeeper, but it soon became obvious that she was his mistress. At first Freer accepted this alteration in his friendship with Jerome, whatever its precise nature, but Rupp was a difficult, domineering woman who was ferociously hostile to Jerome’s friends. For a vivid portrait of Yetta Rupp, we return to Vestal Fire, Compton Mackenzie’s roman à clef. The literature of expatriate life in Capri consists of such encrypted fictional representations to a remarkable degree. Indeed, they outnumber the nonfiction accounts and are sometimes more candid than the memoirs by the same authors.
When [Scudamore, the character based on Jerome] came to Sirene, he brought with him a gypsy-faced young woman as his housekeeper, and it was as much her jealousy as his own books that kept him at home, as much her appalling Midwestern American cooking as his own late hours that made him look so wan and thin. She loved him as women like her love, with as much exasperation as passion. She could not bear to have Scudamore’s “lady” friends treat her as a servant; and she made his life such a misery with her tantrums that for the sake of peace in which to work he gave way to her by inviting no woman, whatever her station, inside his house. Then she tried to keep away his men friends; and she made herself so objectionable with her insolence that fewer and fewer even of them used to visit the scholar.
The description of Rupp as “gypsy-faced” reflects frequent characterizations of her as a mulatto. That would explain one minor mystery of Jerome’s life, why he would bother to carry on the masquerade that she was his servant, for by Capriote standards, relationships of any sort between unmarried men and women constituted a meager scandal. The theory that Yetta was of mixed race has been disputed on the grounds that she had previously resided in an all-white neighborhood in Detroit, which does not seem conclusive. Freer’s role became that of an absent partner in the property until 1905, when he was on a visit there and had a row with Yetta Rupp, which led to Jerome’s buying him out. Freer returned to America and built a grand marble museum in Washington to house his collections, which he made a gift to the nation. Many years after Jerome’s death, Freer told a mutual friend of theirs from Michigan that he had “said to Jerome that he would not set foot in Villa Castello when Yetta was there. Jerome had his choice and he kept Yetta.”
When he moved to Capri, Jerome’s defense of Tiberius was the focus of his work, but as his researches became more intensive, he widened the scope to encompass a study of the morals of the empire from its founding. In his memoirs, Compton Mackenzie described the madness of Jerome’s method: “He set to work on this magnum opus, accumulating more and more books, collecting more and more notes, finding it every year more and more presumptuous to make a beginning until he had acquired more knowledge and still more.” By the time of Jerome’s death, in 1914, his library was one of the most comprehensive collections of Roman history, law, and literature in the world, amounting to more than three thousand volumes, which he divided in his will between the University of Michigan and the American Academy in Rome.
Jerome never completed his treatise on Roman morals. In “Mayhew,” Maugham cast Jerome’s life in a tragic light: “That vast accumulation of knowledge is lost forever. Vain was that ambition, surely not an ignoble one, to set his name beside those of Gibbon and Mommsen.” Maugham concludes his story on a note of patronizing optimism: “And yet to me his life was a success. The pattern is good and complete. He did what he wanted, and he died when his goal was in sight and never knew the bitterness of an end achieved.”
The pattern of Thomas Jerome’s life was, of course, more complex than that of Maugham’s Mayhew. It is true that he never completed his big book about Roman morals, but his research was not lost. Nine years after his death, the cream of it was compiled by a professor at the University of Michigan and published under the dreary title Aspects of the Study of Roman History. The principal divergence of the life of the historical Thomas Jerome from Maugham’s tragic fictional synopsis of it is embodied by a book that he published a few months before he finally succumbed to an acute dyspepsia, which had made his life miserable. Roman Memories in the Landscape Seen from Capri is an imaginative study of the panorama the solitary scholar had contemplated for fourteen years from the terraces of Villa Castello.
Recognizing that the natural beauty of the Campania is “difficult to express without vaporous incoherence,” a just damnation of the extensive literature of travelogues written by other foreign visitors to the region, Jerome proposed to view the coastline as the setting of myth and witness to history. “To make the landscape live,” he wrote, “to give it an added suggestiveness, we need but to consider what has been said and done on these waters and islands, plains, and mountains, what part of the great drama of human history has had this setting for its scene, what these mountains have looked down upon, and what these waters have swallowed up.”
Roman Memories was a modern book when it was published, in 1914, illustrated with well-printed photographs of the landscape by Morgan Heiskell. Jerome brings a lively, informal style to his recitals of familiar myths, which he sets on a par with the imperial histories. He credits Homer’s tale of Odysseus and the Sirens with a truth more durable than that of Tacitus’s account of Tiberius’s Orgy in Capri. In this, his unintended magnum opus, Jerome’s furious denunciation of Tacitus was refined into a worldly, polished skepticism that anticipates the conceptual approach and methods of contemporary historians.
Copyright © 2019 by Jamie James
Map copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey L. Ward