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Interview with Dr. Philip Matyszak

Interview by Ursus

Philip Matyszak received a doctorate in Roman history from St. John's college at Oxford. Currently he teaches history at Cambridge, a vocation he claims to love. He is the author of such books as Chronicles of the Roman Republic, The Enemies of Rome, and Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day.

Doctor Matyszak has become one of the celebrated scholars visiting the UNRV fora. I thought it an excellent idea to ask him a few questions pursuant to my review of his "Sons of Caesar."

Jeremy Baer, aka "Ursus": Thank you for taking a few moments to answer my questions, Doctor. Let me congratulate you on what I thought was an informative, entertaining and much needed reassessment of the early empire. Your assessment is not however without its critics. The lead reviews for your book on Amazon.com declares (to paraphrase) that you've written an apology to whitewash the perceived crimes of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. How would you respond to such sentiments that your tone is overly apologetic.
Philip Matyszak, aka "Maty": Someone once remarked 'Never answer a critic - unless he's right.' I've received as much flak for being 'overly' critical of Julius Caesar as I have had for being soft on the Julio-Claudians generally. However, I'd much prefer that people have strong opinions on the subject than couldn't care less - and they do care, even 2000 years later. I don't think that I've ever accused any of the Julio-Claudians of being nice, but they were doing an immensely difficult and dangerous job, and by and large - apart from Nero and Caligula they did it well and gave the empire a much needed century of stability. What I think we should recognize, and never excuse is that they took a highly dysfunctional democracy, and rather than reform it, they made it into a functional dictatorship. We've been living with idiots who have wanted to do the same ever since.

Ursus: Did you have any special reason or motivation for writing this particular book? You state in your preface that the history of the Caesars "convince many that an effective autocracy is superior to a dysfunctional democracy." Are we to draw any lessons of this history to contemporary reality?
Maty: That's partly answered by my comment above. My motivation for writing this book was simpler however. I was researching the Julio-Claudians for something else, and was very frustrated that I had to buy a separate book for each emperor. No-one had collected the lot into a single volume since Suetonius, and he was hardly an up-to-date or unbiased commentator. So having found that there was a need for such a book, I went ahead and wrote it. It was while doing the research for the book that I observed that the underlying theme was the steady change from open Republican debate to palace intrigue, and I tried to bring this out. Many people have observed that in the USA there has been a Bush, followed by a Clinton, followed by a Bush, with a possibility of another Clinton, and (if Jeb decides to stand) another Bush maybe. Given that the US constitution drew inspiration from the Roman constitution, this is an interesting development, but I disagree with most of the analogies linking the present day USA with Rome 44 BC.

Ursus: How much credence to do you, as a modern historian, give to the more scandalous side of Roman history presented in the primary sources? I noticed, for instance, you were dubious regarding Suetonius' passages on Tiberius' sexual adventures at Capri.
Maty: It's really hard to say. Imagine what some of the more scandalous newspapers would do with modern celebrities if there were no libel laws and no censorship. With the Julio-Claudians, once the current emperor was out of the way, it was pretty much open season on his reputation unless the heir had a particular reason for burnishing it. We've grown less trusting about Roman political invective, and no longer take it at face value. Still, using the modern USA as an example, imagine what Suetonius in muck-raking mode might have made of Kennedy (pick one!) or Bill Clinton. So yes, I'm dubious, but not completely disbelieving.

Ursus: Of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, whom do you find the most interesting figure to study (male or female), and why?
Maty: It's definitely Agrippina minor. Anyone with Nero as a son and Caligula as a brother has got to be interesting, even before she has married and probably assassinated her uncle Claudius. She was Augustus' great grand-daughter and daughter of Germanicus, the most idolized general of his day. Add a feud with Messalina, exile and her spectacular end, and there's a biography I indend to write one day.

Ursus: This question was posed by UNRV moderator, Nephele: "Was there a reason why the patrician Claudians during the period of the Republic were not inclined to adopt anyone into their gens, including even other patricians? I presume it could be chalked up to their reputed haughtiness, as in 'You're not good enough to join our family.' But the Claudii didn't seem to have the same problem with themselves being adopted into other families, such as the (plebeian) Livii and (patrician) Cornelii Lentuli. So, what is the story behind this?"
Maty: I think the reason is that the Claudians were pretty good breeders. The point of adoption was to bring new blood into the family line or to strengthen political alliances. The Claudians could do this through marriage, and as Claudians, they were generally on top anyway. They were happy to adopt out, as this allowed them to pass on surplus sons who were highly expensive when starting a political career, but they had no need to import.

Ursus: While it would be pure speculation, had Augustus not married a Claudian, what other gens in Rome would have made a suitable match for the Julian dynasty in terms of power and prestige?
Maty: The Metelli would have been another possibility - old family, but perhaps too numerous. (All those rivals for the purple). Personally, I suspect that Augustus also considered the Valerians - a family that was around and played a large role in the founding of the Republic. Sulla married one, and Claudius did too (Messalina).

Ursus: I found your observation interesting that Caligula's activities, while depraved, did not harm the state as much as costly wars and currency debasement of later regimes would prove. Yet Caligula is taught to students as basically a monster. Should history classes be kinder to Caligula?
Maty: Well, I certainly take a revisionist view of him. Mad emperors are much better press than spoiled teenage brats with a murderous streak, but I suspect Caligula was the latter - with a solid dash of low cunning. Often one can find method in his madness, and it's hard to see any actual damage done to Rome during his reign, though ancient writers tried jolly hard. Given longer in power Caligula might indeed have been a real monster - but perhaps he might have improved as he and his teenage hormones settled down. He certainly killed about half a million less people than, say Julius Caesar, and executed fewer than Claudius. The common people of Rome liked him and found his antics great fun - they were highly peeved by his death, which should tell us something.

Ursus: You have a growing number of books under your belt. Which one has been your favorite to write so far, and why?
Maty: My favourite is always my current - I tend to get very enthusiastic about whatever book I am writing, so my favourite at the moment is definitely a military history of Mithridates VI of Pontus I'm just finishing for Pen & Sword. It's got poisonings and stabbings, epic battles, seiges, pirates, murderous family intrigues and a wonderful cast of villians. Not a single, decent clean-living hero in the whole eighty-year saga though ...

Ursus: This question originates from UNRV administrator, Chris Heaton: "Whatever happened to a pending work titled: The Political Sociology of the Roman Republic from Sulla to Augustus."
Maty: Alas, I finished it a few years back as an Oxford monograph. My editor sent it back with a series of corrections amounting to a substantial re-write, and I've never had the time to do this. I make much of my living by writing, and this very densely argued volume (many pages have more footnote than text) wold be almost a vanity publication on my part (though with Oxford bearing the cost). All the more so as though many of the arguments I put forward as a fresh-faced postgrad were radical at the time, I'm pleased to see that much of my thesis has since become mainstream. It's always fun meeting these ideas in other people's work, but the book itself would no longer be as original as if I published a decade back.

Ursus: Are you enjoying your time here at UNRV? And have you told your Roman history colleagues at Oxford and Cambridge about our humble little website (if their books are good we will give them great reviews and free press!)?
Maty: Not only do I recommend you to colleagues, I also frequently refer students to UNRV - and have also taught at least one of our members on Cambridge e-learning courses. I make a point of dropping in regularly, and am always impressed by the depth of knowledge that many contributors have. I've learned a lot and try to help by adding details where I can - but quite often previous posts have covered the topic in more detail than I could manage, even in my own specialist areas.

On behalf of UNRV, I thank Maty for his time and indulgence.

...back to the review of Sons of Caesar

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Interview with Dr. Philip Matyszak - Related Topic: Roman History


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