Robert Hughes: a reply?
Should writers reply to reviewers? I remember when mostly they did not. I now edit a paper where often they do.
I am sympathetic to both positions.
But people have started to ask me whether the Australian critic and historian, Robert Hughes, has replied anywhere to my remarks earlier this year about his 'history' of Rome.
I cannot say. I don't know.
I am old enough not to assume that just because there is said to be nothing on line that nothing therefore exists.
Perhaps Mr Hughes has explained himself, even apologised to the purchasers of his peculiarly careless tome.
Perhaps he considers himself too grand to do so. I do not blame him for that either.
For those who missed that piece - or are still wondering whether author or publisher has a reply - I am copying it below.
This is purely for information to those who have asked. If no explanation has yet come, then probably it will not.
"There are two sorts of carelessness that a reviewer of history books will regularly see. The first is a minor marring of virtue, a small blot on a show of swashbuckling confidence and command over grand themes, a lack of care for what lesser men may think, arrogance even; we often call this being carefree rather than careless. The critic can correct and admire and move on.
The second sort of carelessness is unsettling,almost a vice, a show of unconcern and shallow understanding, an arrogance of a different kind, a lack of care of any kind. In his 500-page account of the history of Rome, Robert Hughes is doubly, gloriously and disgracefully careless.
Most history books contain errors; but Hughes's account of some 3,000 years from the foundation of Rome to Fascism and Fellini has anextraordinary number. Some, particularly in the later part of the book,are pure errors of virtue. Unless a critic finds pleasure in carping (a satisfaction that can be concealed sometimes by the claim that one is helping the author for his second edition) it is of small moment to note that to describe George Gissing's 'By The Ionian Sea' as a'long-disregarded novel' is to disregard the fact it is not a novel atall. Fellini's film, La Dolce Vita, whose photographer, Paparazzo, took his name from Gissing's travelogue and handed it on to celebrity snappers across the world, gets such exuberant attention in Rome that it hardly matters that Gissing's work has been 'disregarded' (ie unread) by Hughes too. This author oozes eloquent passion for Bernini and Caravaggio and if critics find the odd error in all of that, too bad.
In the first half of the book, however, the carelessness is decisively different. Hughes begins his history long before the Renaissance sculptors, papal architects and fashionable film-makers that he evokes so fiercely. To pick a passage almost at random, on the last page of the second chapter Hughes writes about the death of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, and how 'smoothly' went the transition of power to his successor, described as 'Livia's eldest son by him, Tiberius'.
If Tiberius had actually been 'Livia's son by him, her son by her second husband Augustus, the succession might well have gone smoothly (or not);but he was not Livia's son by Augustus at all. Tiberius was Livia's sonby her first husband Tiberius Claudius Nero, a rather remarkable Roman in himself.
Augustus founded a great empire. Tiberus Claudius Nero lost his wife to this most ambitious and successful man of his age but ended up siring a vast dynasty of imperial potentates, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. An easy and forgivable mistake? Well, quite easy and forgivable, I suppose, unless you are being paid to write a history of Rome; you would also need to have forgotten Robert Graves's I Claudius and all the soap-opera versions.
The achievement of Livia's first husband was the sort that has often very much mattered to Romans. Augustus himself sired only one child, a daughter, a matter also of note to anyone for whom theancient history of Rome has been a genuine care.
Two pages further on Hughes tells of another death, that of the African king, Jugurtha, 'of starvation in 105 CE' - which would be a fine addition to a section on the Emperor Caligula's prison policy if Jugurtha had not died more than 200 years before. Fine again, the author or publisher might say. That is the old BC/AD, BCE/CE confusion, easilydone; so easily that it is done in the next line too. Vercingetorix, 'Caesar's chief enemy in Gaul', is executed in '46 CE', ninety years after Caesar himself was killed.
Does Hughes care about gladiatorial shows? Most historians of ancient Rome do, some of them too much. But it is unsettling to read a declaration that 'a succession of autocrats, starting with Augustus himself and continuing onwards through Pompey and Julius Caesar, treated these games as the greatest imperial show of all'. Onwards? It wasAugustus who succeeded Julius Caesar and Pompey. Continuing backwardsperhaps? The beginning and end of Augustus's reign are twin hinges on which Roman histories hang. Here there seems to be no care for either.Hughes posits Nero's architects planning the Colosseum, the most famous Roman building of all, famously built to obliterate Nero's massive Golden House palace and other unpleasant memories of his reign. If any of his architects were planning this edifice before his death, they were brave men indeed.
On the same page Hughes discusses the gladiator emperor, Commodus, not an obscure figure today following his depiction in the film, Gladiator. In 138 CE, Hughes writes, the deranged, dissolute Commodus was the 'son and successor' of the Emperor Hadrian. No, he was not. Commodus's father, as shown in the film and in all history books, was the philosopher emperor, Marcus Aurelius, whom Commodus succeeded in 180 CE,some forty years later.
Hadrian's own successor was Antoninus Pius whom Hughes bizarrely describes as 'the Christian Antoninus Pius'; the identity of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great in the early fourth century, is hardly a trivial matter for a writer of a book called Rome. Antoninus Pius, though modest in his Christian persecutions by the standards of some, was properly deified after his death into the pagan pantheon.
Does any of this matter? Each error individually maybe does not. Maybe they will all be corrected, the earlier copies pulped. Or to confuse Pompey with his father will be judged merely unhelpful; to write the name of Miltiades, the Athenian aristocrat, instead of Mithradates, a Roman enemy from 400 years later, only a slip of the aural memory.
Hughes quotes 'the famous Cleopatra epode' when it is the ode which urges us 'nunc est bibendum' and the epode is rarely read at all. Who will care? Few perhaps. But when all is taken together, whatever corrections are made, surely the buyers ofthis book have been taken for a ride.
The emperor Marcus Aurelius, for example, is an important figure fo Hughes as he is for most historians, not one of those minor characters about whose fatherhood a writer can make a virtuous mistake. His equestrian statue in Rome is one of the city's great surviving artworks from its ancient past and for Hughes was 'the most decisive and revelatory' sight when he first visited the city in 1959.
Hughes cares about art, and this piece of art in particular; in the epilogue to the book he rails against the modern 'vandalism' that has removed the bronze rider to a ramp in the Capitoline Museum 'slanting meaninglessly upwards in a way that Michelangelo would never have countenanced. But a historian has surely to care enough about the man too, enough to avoid awarding his son, even his most disappointing son, to someone else.
A challenge for any historian of early Rome is to help the reader discern what might be true and what is certainly false, what was legendary, what is historical, why the traditional stories were told, retold and adapted. That task is important not merely for the antiquarian pedant but because in the oldest history some of the problems of all history are most starkly shown.
This was not territory that Hughes was obliged to enter. Many historians of Rome have wisely avoided the questions of Romulus and Remus and the flight of Aeneas from Troy.
The city's early history is a collective memory created by poets and propagandists of the Augustan age, constructed out of myths passed through many memories over many centuries. Therefore to cite 'the great historian Livy' for the account of how Aeneas's descendants were suckled by a she-wolf is a nonsense even as a careless aside. Livy knew almost nothing about the Rome of eight hundred years before his birth - and what few facts that he did know he did not allow to get in the way of a good story.
By contrast what Hughes describes as the 'legendary date' ofthe fall of Troy was, in fact, the first recognisably scientific date,offered in the second century BCE and quite close to what we now think is the truth.
The best Roman writers themselves - Cicero in the forefront - had a sophisticated understanding of memory, myth and history. So did many of the hundreds of historians who have followed. It is no tribute to them - or to the city whose story Hughes writes - to reduce that thought barely to the level of a bad guide book, the sort used and sold by those 'artistic illiterates' that in his epilogue, boldly and wholly without irony, he judges now 'most Italians' to be.