Q&A with Bruce about Roman Mysteries
How do you account for the great popularity of the Roman mysteries in recent years?
Well, I think credit is due to Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor, who invented the genre back in the 1980s. Since then, many others have gotten on the bandwagon--all excellent writers. Perhaps their popularity is due to the fact that we readers think we understand the Romans and see a lot of ourselves in them. It's interesting that relatively few popular novels have been written about the ancient Greeks; the Greeks are much harder to "get."
Romans have always been popular with moviegoers from Quo Vadis to Ben Hur to Spartacus and right up through Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Does Hollywood get the Romans right?
No, not really, although I love all those movies. There is something that I call the "Hollywood Roman." There's a kind of metaculture of costumes, sets, stock scenes, gestures which has less to do with ancient reality than with newsreels of Nazi and Fascist rallies of the 30s and 40s. The stiff raised arm salute, for instance. Hollywood thought it was Roman because Mussolini and Hitler thought it was.
You have spent many years with the Romans both as scholar and author; do you like them?
The Romans are not an easy people to like. The Greeks hated them. They found them to be humorless, arrogant, cruel, corrupt, and utterly lacking in artistic taste. It's hard to argue with that verdict. The Romans are more to be admired than loved. That said, there are a few individual Romans—and Pliny the Younger is certainly one—who come across as genial, tolerant, and intellectually curious. The kind of person you would actually like to have had dinner with.
How would you describe Pliny's character?
We know more about Pliny as a person than we do about most figures from antiquity because he was a great letter writer. Through his letters, we see many facets of the man. He was a Roman senator and a lawyer with a successful, if not brilliant, career in the imperial administration. He was a landowner with a beautiful villa on the Italian coast. He was a literary dilettante. He was rather vain, rather fussy. At the same time, conscientious and honest. He was a very social animal with hundreds of friends and acquaintances across all classes. His most endearing qualities are his love for his young wife, Calpurnia, his generosity (he endowed a scholarship fund for the boys and girls of his home town), and his humanity towards his slaves and freedmen in an age when that was not common.