Allan Massie: Tiberius

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Allan Massie Tiberius
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Allan Massie



by way of Disclaimer

I don't know when I have undertaken anything with more hesitation than this preface, which my publishers have demanded of me. They have done so because they don't wish, as they put it, "to be associated with anything which may turn out to be a fraud without making their doubts as to the authenticity of the publication known".

Fair enough, of course; but where does it leave me, for even the strongest disclaimer is unlikely to allay the reader's doubts? After all, if the book itself is not what it purports to be, why should the introduction be believed?

And yet I see why they want it. That is the irritating thing. It's the coincidence as much as anything which disturbs them. Let me explain then, as far as I can.

In 1984 the autobiography of the Emperor Augustus was discovered in the Macedonian monastery of SS Cyril and Methodius (not St Cyril Methodius as erroneously stated by Professor Aeneas Fraser-Graham in his introduction to my English version of the book, an error which has persisted obstinately, despite my appeals, in British, American, French, Italian, German and, as far as I can determine squinting at uncut pages, Danish editions).

This autobiography, lost since antiquity, but attested to by Suetonius and other writers, was entrusted to me to translate. Mine was to be a popular edition published in advance of the great scholarly annotated edition which was being prepared and is still, as far as I know, being prepared, and indeed looks likely to remain in that state of preparation for a long time to come. That is no concern of mine however.

My translation attracted gratifying notice on the whole, also, of course, the attention of the odd lunatic; one such, for example, informing me that page 121 of the American edition disclosed the secrets of the Great Pyramid, which is surely unlikely.

Then, eighteen months ago, when I was visiting Naples at the invitation (as I supposed, though this was in fact an error on my part) of the British Council, I was accosted in the Galleria Umberto by a stout middle-aged man in a dingy suit. He was clutching a black book under his left arm. The way he held it drew my attention to a hole in the elbow of his jacket. He addressed me by name, according me, in the Italian fashion, a doctorate to which I am not entitled, owing (if I may digress) to a difference of opinion with the authorities of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1960.

Then he introduced himself to me as Count Alessandro di Caltagirone, a name the significance of which I did not immediately grasp. He told me he had been greatly impressed by my translation of the memoirs of Augustus, though he understood, of course, that they were not authentic.

"Why should you think that?" I said.

"That is no question to put to me," he replied, and called for a brandy and soda at my expense.

"Unlike what I can offer you," he continued. "And what is that?"

"The authentic memoirs of the Emperor Tiberius," he replied. "Come," I said, "this is too much of a coincidence…" "On the contrary, it is only so much of a coincidence because it was written that it should so be…" "Written?" I said.

"In your horoscope, which I cast myself, more than two hundred years ago."

By now, as you may imagine, I concluded that I was dealing with a madman, and tried to remove myself as inconspicuously as possible. But he would not be shaken off. He positively attached himself to my person, and, to cut a long story short, we eventually came to an agreement, the exact terms of which I am not at liberty to divulge. The long and short of it was that I came into possession of the Latin manuscript which I have now translated and present to you here.

I am not going to pronounce on its authenticity: that is for the reader to determine. If it convinces him or her, that is a testimony such as no scholar can gainsay. (And my own faith in scholarship has, I confess, been shaken in recent years. Scholars are like other people: they believe what it suits them to believe and then find reasons for doing so.)

But there are certain reservations which, to protect my good name, I wish to make.

First, the manuscript from which I worked is probably the only one in existence and is written on paper which dates only from the eighteenth century.

Second, Count Alessandro di Caltagirone is, I have gathered, a man with a dubious reputation. For one thing, this is certainly not his name, and it is doubtful if he is really a count. More alert readers will have made at once a connection which escaped me for some months. Caltagirone was the name of the monastery where Giuseppe Balsamo, better known as Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, was educated from 1760-69. Cagliostro of course — physician, philosopher, alchemist and necromancer — claimed to possess "the elixir of eternal youth", a phrase that has dropped also from my friend Caltagirone's lips, though I am bound to add that his appearance contradicts it.

When I asked him about the provenance of the manuscript, he was first evasive, then said he could certainly account for its whereabouts since 1770. What is one to make of that?

Even a cursory reading of the memoirs must inspire the critic with doubts. There are moments when Tiberius appears to have the sensibility which one associates with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment rather than with Ancient Rome. There is, too, a curious lack of detail about daily life in imperial Rome, and an absence of that awareness of religion which, despite other indications to the contrary, formed such an integral part of the superstitious Roman character. Such references as there are to this central experience of the Roman spirit are perfunctory, as if the author of the manuscript found the whole business a bore to which he nevertheless paid occasional heed. If one remembers that the eighteenth century saw the first revulsion from Tacitus, the traducer of Tiberius, a revulsion expressed, for instance, by both Voltaire and Napoleon, then it seems plausible to suggest that what we have here is an "Anti-Tacitus" composed by some mischievous intellectual of that time for his own diversion.

On the other hand, if one accepts the Caltagirone-Cagliostro identification (which I am loth to do), then it may contain some occult message which I have failed to decipher.

That is indeed a possibility, but if there be such a message, then it is likely to be understood only by the surviving lodges of Egyptian Freemasons which were founded by Cagliostro himself. There is one in Palermo, another in Naples itself, a third in St Petersburg (inactive, I am told) and a fourth, which is also the largest and most vocal, in Akron, Ohio. Yet even the Akron lodge has failed to respond to my appeals for help.

A week after Caltagirone pressed the manuscript upon me, his death was announced on the front page of Il Mattino, the principal Neapolitan daily. He was described in the frank manner of the Italian press as "a notorious swindler".

So I was left with the manuscript, and, intrigued, set to work on it.

Further discrepancies appeared, and it was soon clear to me that, whatever its provenance, whatever its element of authenticity, the memoirs had been the work of more than one hand, and at different periods. I became convinced that even the eighteenth-century paper was a blind or false trail or red herring. It seemed strange, for instance, that on page 187 of the manuscript Tiberius should be quoting Nietzsche. This, together with the tone of some passages, made me wonder whether a gloss had been put on the original (if it existed) by some resident of Capri in, perhaps, the first decade of this century. And this suspicion was intensified when my all-seeing agent, Giles Gordon, remarked that one incident seemed to be drawn from The Story of San Mich ele by Axel Munthe.

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