March Word of Mouth


Delight: A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food — David Downie

Non-Fiction: Women and Power: A Manifesto –– Mary Beard

Non-Fiction: So You Want to Talk About Race — Ijeoma Oluo

Strategy: How life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom Garry Kasparov

TV: False Flag — Amit Cohen, Maria Feldman


Song: O Menina Dança –Novos Baianos

Not so ancient inspiration: A cynical young person is almost the saddest sight to see, because it means that he or she has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.  Maya Angelou


February Word of Mouth

Fiction: You Know Who You Are  Ben Dolnick

Non-fiction: Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom — Thomas Ricks

Website: SorryWatch — Susan McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall

TV: Fauda –Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz

Podcast: This Podcast Has Fleas — Koyalee Chanda and Adam Pelzman

Music: Serie Platano — Los Indios Tabajaras



Not-So-Ancient Inspiration: 

“Patience is not very different from courage. It just takes longer.” — James Richardson


November Word of Mouth

Non-fiction: Give Work: Reversing Poverty One Job at a Time — Leila Janah

How To Be on the Right Side of History: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century — Timothy Snyder

Memoir/Guide: The Constant Choice: an Everyday Journey from Evil Toward Good — Peter Georgescu

Fiction: Headlong — Michael Frayn

Music: Tradition in Transition — Quantic and His Combo Bárbaro

Podcast: Trumpcast — Slate

Ancient Inspiration: “Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit, because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.”

— Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56–117 CE)


What’s in a name?

Epitaph in the columbarium niche of Aristarchus, freedman, a nomenclator. From Johns Hopkins Archeological Museum.

Epitaph in the columbarium niche of Aristarchus, freedman, a nomenclator. From the Johns Hopkins Archeological Museum.

One of the biggest barriers to entry into ancient Rome — both reading about it, and writing about it — has to be the very complicated naming conventions. In a status-obsessed society like ancient Rome, a name functioned like an identity card. One’s social status was immediately apparent in the structure of the name itself. The triple-barreled name we are familiar with — Gaius Julius Caesar, for example — was the privilege of Roman citizens only. Slaves were permitted just one name.

Another problem: everyone was named after his or her father. This tradition goes on to the point of absurdity: when Marcus had a son, he was also Marcus. When Marcus had a daughter, she was Marcia. If he had two daughters, they would be called Marcia the Elder and Marcia the Younger. There were surprisingly few first names (praenomen) for the upper classes, who recycled the names of previous generations. In the darkest moments of my research, it seemed that everyone was named Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.

And there weren’t enough family names (nomen) to go around. Hence the need for a third name, the cognomen, to distinguish one branch of the family from another. The cognomen was often given to a child by his parents, or by general consensus from the community. The name could be descriptive of someone’s appearance, occupation or origin. Marcus Tullius Cicero, for example — Cicero means “chickpea.” Perhaps this branch of the family farmed chickpeas, or perhaps the original patriarch had a wart at the end of his nose that looked like a chickpea; by the time Cicero was practicing law, the original meaning of the chickpea had been forgotten. Cicero’s good friend and Grecophile Titus Pomponius Atticus gave himself his cognomen, Atticus (“Man of Attica,”) after the Greek region where Athens is located.

These third names are often descriptive, amusing or uncomplimentary: Brutus (Stupid), Dentatus (Toothy), Bibulus (Drunkard), Cincinattus (Curly Haired). Does the Sicilian Mafia nickname custom (Vinny “the Chin” Gigante) spring from this ancient Roman tradition? Sometimes the general community would give a man a third name to recognize a military victory, i.e. when Nero Claudius Drusus was nicknamed Germanicus (Victor over the Germans), or a particular virtue, such as Pompey Magnus (the Great). Eventually, these third names became hereditary.

Slaves were given names by their owners. Sometimes, they were named after their geographical origin; many slaves were called Delos, for example, a major slave trading port in Greece. However, most of the funerary inscriptions that we know of come from imperial times, when few slaves were being imported, and the epitaphs of slaves show that even in imperial times, they were still carrying Greek names. “One theory holds that the Greek names emphasize the slave’s outsider status,” writes Christopher Francese, author of Ancient Rome in So Many Words. “These foreign, non-Roman names reinforce the social isolation and marginality of the slave in Roman society. Perhaps, but we need to keep in mind that Greece had also long been known to the Romans as the land of luxury, home of high culture, fine consumer goods, art, tapestries, food, and the good life in general. It was pleasing somehow to see this soft, luxurious stuff as non-Italian, an imported self-indulgence.”


Hermes, god of trade, athletes, travel and communication.

Some slaves were named after Greek gods. Hermes — the god of trade, athletes, travel and messenger with wings on his sandals — was a popular name. What a cruel irony for someone whose power was so limited! When a slave was freed, he took on his master’s name. So, hypothetically, if Hermes the slave were freed by his master, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, his name would be Gnaeus Domitius Hermes, written in documents G. Domitius l. Hermes, the “l” standing for “libertus,” freedman. The freedman’s children would add their own, probably Roman names, to their father’s new name, omitting the Greek slave name, the better to erase their history of slavery. Thus, the child of this hypothetical freedman would be Gnaeus Domitius Marcus. If a woman freed a slave, he would take on her father’s first and second name, plus his slave name. Freedwomen took the feminine form of their master’s (or mistress’s) second name plus their slave name.

If all this is confusing, remember that the ancient Romans didn’t have thousands of entertainment choices to distract them, and that everyone’s life depended on treating powerful people with the proper deference. An aristocrat out for a walk would have had heralds who cleared the road and announced his name as he and his entourage entered a public space. A slave called a nomenclator would stand behind the host at a banquet, and whisper the names of the guests to him as they arrived, so that the host could greet everyone properly, according to their status.

Because I wanted everything in my epistolary novel Quid Pro Quo to be historically correct, I originally insisted on using my characters’ full names. It would have been a tremendous faux pas to refer to an ancient Roman noble by just his first name, especially in correspondence. However, I soon saw that my early readers were getting bogged down in the names, no doubt because there wasn’t a nomenclator to identify the characters. So after the first mention of a character in the book, I referred to him or her by the name the character was known by informally. I did include a lengthy Dramatis Personae in the beginning of the book, to help people keep track. One hopes that the reader dives directly into the book, and doesn’t get discouraged by all the names up front.

Originally, I had a Maximus, a Marius, a Marcia and a Maxima in one family. I changed Marcia’s name to Patricia, even though she would have been a Marcia, named after her father, Marcus Cluvius Rufus. Her brother, also named Marcus Cluvius Rufus, was a real person, an historian, magistrate, and an eyewitness who played a small role in the events surrounding the assassination of Caligula. His work was cited by later historians, Publius Cornelius Tacitus and Flavius Josephus. Marcus Cluvius Rufus existed; his sisters are my own invention. Therefore, I changed their names to Patricia the Elder and Patricia the Younger, and have to assume the reader will be grateful to have one fewer “M” name to keep track of in the Trebellius family. I still think of them as Marcia the Elder and Marcia the Younger, but never mind.

Seneca on Saturday: Anger vs. Reason

Please forgive the shocking delay! Seneca on Saturday has returned. Something in the air has got me thinking about anger. I can’t imagine what it could be! 

3rd Century Mosaic from the Villa Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily.

3rd-4th century mosaic from the Villa Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily.













…Consequently, not all who have sinned alike are punished alike, and often he who has committed the smaller sin receives the greater punishment, because he was subjected to anger when it was fresh. And anger is altogether unbalanced; it now rushes farther than it should, now halts sooner than it ought. For it indulges its own impulses, is capricious in judgement, refuses to listen to evidence, grants no opportunity for defense, maintains whatever position it has seized, and is never willing to surrender its judgement even if it is wrong.

Reason grants a hearing to both sides, then seeks to postpone action, even its own, in order that it may gain time to sift out the truth; but anger is precipitate. Reason wishes the decision that it gives to be just; anger wishes to have the decision which it has given seem the just decision. Reason considers nothing except the question at issue; anger is moved by trifling things that he outside the case. An overconfident demeanor, a voice too loud, boldness of speech, foppishness in dress, a pretentious show of patronage, popularity with the public – these inflame anger. Many times it will condemn the accused because it hates his lawyer; even if the truth is piled up before its very eyes, it loves error and clings to it; it refuses to be convinced, and having entered upon wrong it counts persistence to be more honorable than penitence.

Lucilus Annaeus Seneca the Younger, To Novatus on Anger

Caligula, and who else: When the world really DOES revolve around a narcissist

My essay on the echoes of Caligula that surfaced in the election of Donald Trump has just appeared in the first issue of an on-line journal, Scoundrel Time. 

Reconstruction of the original polychromy of a Roman portrait of emperor Caligula, in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. On a loan by the Glyptotek in Munich. Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto

Reconstruction of the original painted marble bust of the emperor Caligula, in the
Istanbul Archaeological Museum. On loan by the Glyptotek in Munich. Photo: Giovanni Dall’Orto

An arrogant, narcissistic, blond serial rapist attains the highest office in the land, abuses his power, and offends everyone personally: this is the subject of my newest novel, Quid Pro Quo, a behind-the-scenes look at the assassination of Caligula, the third Emperor of ancient Rome. It is impossible to ignore the many echoes of Caligula’s story that played out in the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump, a man whom the 2nd century historian Suetonius might have been describing when he wrote of Caligula, “there was nothing in his own character which he admired and approved more highly than…his shameless impudence.”

Here are a few more Caligulan themes that have surfaced in the DJT ascendency:

  1. Narcissism

“All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me–consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.” –From Trump: How to Get Rich (2004) by DJT.

It is tempting to call Caligula a narcissist, but unlike with most narcissists, the world really did revolve around him. By the time Caligula ascended in 37 CE, the Roman Empire encompassed much of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. He thus had unlimited power over huge swathes of the globe.

Unlike the first emperor, Augustus–who used his power to enact wide-ranging political restructuring and legal revisions; changed the face of the city with splendid public spaces; and saw to the prevention of fires, floods, and famines– Caligula didn’t have much on his mind other than his own particular mood at the time. He was extremely sensitive about how he was perceived, spoken about, and treated. Caligula ordered that important statues of various deities have their heads cut off to be replaced with heads of his own. He erected a life-sized gold statue of himself in a temple in Rome, and ordered that the statue be dressed in clothing that matched the outfit he himself was wearing each day. When statues of him were defaced, he ordered a unit of the Praetorian Guard to be added in order to protect them.

  1. Grandiosity

“I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” –DJT speech in Washington DC, September 2015.

Unlike his predecessor, Tiberius, who became emperor at the age of 56 after a long career in the Army and in public office, Caligula became emperor at the age of 24 with no practical experience in any area of life. “Caligula,” meaning “Little Boot,” was the nickname he received when his mother dressed him up in a soldier’s outfit and boots and paraded him around an army camp at the age of 2; this was pretty much the limit of Caligula’s military expertise. Yet he decided that Britain needed to be conquered, and sent his legions out on a confused, ill-planned expedition into the English Channel. When an invasion proved impossible, he ordered his soldiers to gather seashells to bring back to Rome for a parade to boast of his conquest.

  1. Populist rhetoric and the craven subservience of the Establishment

“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth… The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country… That all changes starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment.” –DJT, inaugural address, January 20, 2017.

Caligula declared his enmity to the Senate early on, when he returned direct elections to the people of Rome. The Senate handled this and other bald moves to curtail their power by abasing itself with fulsome praise and tributes to the Emperor. Wiser senators noticed that Caligula was never satisfied with the honors that they voted him: either the honor was too small, implying that he was not worthy of something greater, or he was outraged that the Senate had the power to grant him any honor at all. From time to time, he tossed coins from his balcony down to his subjects below, although the historian Cassius Dio, writing in the late 2nd century, pointed out that Caligula mixed in bits of iron with the currency.

  1. Cruelty

“I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” –DJT, Republican presidential debate, Manchester, N.H., Feb. 6, 2016.

Although violence was omnipresent in ancient Rome, from gladiatorial contests to the constant physical abuse of slaves, animals, and children, Caligula raised the bar on spiteful cruelty. Seneca the Younger, a popular writer in Caligula’s Court, reported that the Emperor once forced a nobleman to watch his son’s execution, and then insisted that he attend a banquet and sit by his side. He had another knight stripped and flogged in front of spectators; when the man’s family began crying, he had them put in a dog cage to watch on all fours. He accused a slave of stealing something at a party and demanded that his hands be cut off and hung around his neck and that he walk around displaying a placard detailing the crime he committed, written in his own blood. Even when Caligula wanted someone executed, he insisted that it be done slowly, and with great pain. “Strike him so that he feels he is dying!” he told his Praetorian Guards.

  1. Comfort with negative attention

“Good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells.” –From Trump: The Art of the Deal (1987) by DJT.

According to Suetonius, Caligula said, “Let them hate me, so they but fear me.”

  1. Sexual misconduct, promiscuity, and violence

“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful women, I just start kissing them, it’s like a magnet. You know when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” –DJT, talking to the host of Access Hollywood in 2005.

In the first year of his reign, Caligula attended a high-society wedding, liked the look of the bride, and took the groom’s place in the ceremony, tossing him a priesthood as a consolation prize. At official events, Caligula frequently examined the guests as they arrived at the Palace, and would choose one of the women for himself. He would invite her upstairs to his chamber to “view his cameo glassware,” have sex with her, with or without her consent, and then return to the party. At the banquet later on, he would announce to the party guests–including the woman’s husband, parents and friends–how she had performed in bed.

The 1st century historian Flavius Josephus reports that Caligula repeatedly teased his bodyguards mercilessly for being unmanly. Suetonius and Cassius Dio accuse him of having incestuous relationships with all three of his sisters, as well as dalliances with various gladiators, actors, comedians, and at least one of his brothers-in-law. However the historian Anthony A. Barrett, author of Caligula: The Corruption of Power, points out that, in ancient Rome, accusations of sexual misconduct often hid political conspiracy, especially when the imperial family was involved.

  1. Motivated by revenge

“My motto is: Always get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.” –From Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life (2007) by DJT.

Caligula’s ego was so fragile that if he saw someone else enjoying attention or prestige–successful generals, advocates pleading their clients’ cases with wit, or writers enjoying public acclaim–he would call for their execution. According to Suetonius, Caligula had King Ptolemy of Mauretania executed because he roused general interest when making an entrance at the theater in a splendid purple cloak.

As Caligula’s paranoia flowered unchecked, the Court grew smaller and smaller. During his first year as emperor, he forced his father-in-law, his adopted brother, the Commander of the Praetorian Guards, and the Commander’s wife to commit suicide, on the pretense that they were conspiring against him. Bodies began to pile up as the Emperor had various senators and knights executed, perhaps without trials–the sources are unclear on this. He banished his sisters into exile on barren islands in the Mediterranean and had his brother-in-law and former lover executed.

  1. Delusion

“I alone can fix it.” –DJT, acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican Convention.

The humiliation and violence with which Caligula treated his family, household, and Court soon became his undoing whenspoiler alert!his bodyguards finally had had enough of his taunting and stabbed him at the theater. The scene turned into a bloody free-for-all as members of Court and the Senate, all of whom he had offended personally over the years, jumped on top of him to take turns abusing his dead body.

It is tempting to draw parallels between the Little Boot and the Donald. Of course, reading about an ancient tyrant strutting, thieving, and beheading perceived enemies is entertaining in a way that reading about a contemporary bully stoking his ego, inciting violence, and sowing chaos on a world stage just cannot be.

Historians are quick to remind us that all we know about Caligula was written by the men he had harmed most, or the descendants of those he had stripped of all power. It is as if all we knew about Donald Trump were written by Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and the remaining survivors of the Boeing Corporation.

However, if his story of absolute corruption is even partially true, Caligula did untold damage to the state, institutions, and people of Rome. Yet it is important to recall that, although they surely must have suffered at the hands of this unstable tyrant, the people of Rome did not elect their emperors, and they did not vote for Caligula.