If you could have dinner with three Romans, who would you invite? I was thinking about this the other day, and here is my guest list:
Cicero was my first choice. I suspect that he was a bit of an arrogant git, but there’s no doubt that the man was a genius. From humble(ish) origins he rose to become one of the most influential men in Rome. He was consul in 63 BC, and Julius Caesar invited him to join the first triumvirate (Cicero refused because he hated Caesar, but that’s another story). He had a sense of humour and a bitterly sharp wit, and was incredibly educated- he studied oratory in Athens, and in his later years when he was effectively side-lined from politics he spent his spare time translating Greek philosophy into Latin. He also lived in one of the most interesting periods of time in Roman history- the final years of the republic- and knew lots of fascinating people- not only Caesar, but Antony, Octavian, Cleopatra, Catullus (and Lesbia/Clodia). He didn’t like most of them, but that only makes him a more entertaining guest.
It would be tempting to invite some of Cicero’s acquaintances (perhaps Catullus and Lesbia?) just to watch the fireworks, but in the interest of variety my next guest would be Agrippina, mother of the emperor Nero. Agrippina was one of the last of the fascinating, but troubled, Julio-Claudian family. Her brother was the emperor Caligula, and her uncle (later also her husband) was the emperor Claudius. Caligula didn’t like her much (he sent her into exile) but she had considerable influence over Claudius, and when Nero came to power she was for a time effectively co-emperor. Later Nero grew to resent her, and eventually had her killed. Such a powerful and ambitious woman so closely connected to three different emperors would undoubtedly have a few good stories to tell, though you’d probably need to watch the food closely (she was said to have poisoned Claudius).
I can imagine the conversation at my dinner party getting pretty heavy with those two, and can think of no one better to liven the mood than the poet Ovid. Whereas Cicero’s humour was (I suspect) bitter and vicious, Ovid comes across in his poetry as fun-loving, warm and generous, if sometimes a bit vulgar. At times he is completely over the top and it seems like he has trouble taking anything seriously, though he was by no means a light-weight- in addition to his love poems and manuals he wrote mythological poems (not just the light-hearted Metamorphoses, but the Heroides as well), a kind of historical calendar (the Fasti) and a version of Medea, sadly lost to us. As part of the literary circle of Maecenas he knew many of the other eminent poets of his day (Propertius, Tibullus and Horace for example), and probably Augustus himself. Whether he knew Augustus personally or not he certainly did something to upset him (we don’t know exactly what- it’s one of the things I would ask him if I had the chance), and he was banished from Rome in AD 17 never to return.
That’s my list, who would you invite?