Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Emperor Tiberius on Capri

Tiberius (born 42 BC, reigned 14-37 AD) was the second Roman Emperor, in succession to his stepfather, Augustus. He was not originally intended as the heir. He was kept busy on imperial duties from 20 BC, and showed talent as a soldier and administrator. In 6 BC, being fed up or merely tired, he withdrew to the island of Rhodes for several years to study with the Greek philosophers; but was recalled to Rome when the deaths of Augustus's grandsons left the succession open. In his early years as Emperor he showed republican traits, scornfully rebuffing any obsequiousness or flattery, but he seemed to find personal relationships difficult, and he was never popular.
     In 26 AD he withdrew again, this time to Capri. From there he continued to conduct the bureaucratic side of governing the empire, but he never returned to Rome. In his absence the city fell under the control of two ambitious police chiefs: Sejanus and then Macro, who conducted brutal purges of the senatorial aristocracy; whether on Tiberius's direct orders is not clear. After his death at the age of 79 the imperial title passed to his young great- nephew, Gaius Caligula, whose behaviour soon proved to be insane.
    At some stage, either during Tiberius's lifetime or later, stories began to circulate about grotesque orgies being held on Capri, involving the aged Emperor and swarms of very young children. It was also said that anyone who angered him was flung over the cliffs. It is obviously impossible today to assess the truth of such stories, but Tiberius's critics ever since have gleefully combined them with the cruelty of his police chiefs to paint a picture of the Emperor's all-round wickedness.

The Villa Jovis was just one of many residences that Tiberius built for himself on Capri. It occupied a spectacular site on the extreme north-east tip of the island, looking precipitously down to the sea. It is quite a slog climbing up to it from the town below in the heat of summer, but well worth the effort.
     In amongst the text are some pictures I took, showing the huge extent of the Villa Jovis, and the amazing views.

Tiberius's reputation for wickedness derives from the writings of the two great Roman historians Tacitus (born 55 AD) and Suetonius (born 69 AD). Now it is immediately obvious from these dates that neither man could have spoken to many people with direct personal knowledge of Tiberius; and the more contemporary sources which survive are much less critical of the Emperor. Yet Tacitus assails him in the first six books of the "Annals", stressing his cruelty, his morbidly suspicious nature and the immorality of his personal life. Why Tacitus chose to do this is unclear: modern historians tend to think that his description of Tiberius is actually a coded attack on Domitian (reigned 81-96 AD), a tyrant-emperor from Tacitus's own day.

As for Suetonius, his book "The Twelve Caesars", though a splendidly entertaining read, is best seen as an early exercise in sensational tabloid journalism (in the case of Tiberius, "Paedo Emperor in Capri child abuse horror!"), and the sources for his salacious anecdotes are not known.
Modern readers know Tiberius mostly from Robert Graves's historical novel "I, Claudius", and from the TV series it engendered in the 1980s. The stories which Graves relates with such relish mostly come from Suetonius. Tiberius is portrayed as a flawed yet tragic personality, always conscious that the imperial family used his services but did not like him, and with his personal happiness ruined when Augustus forced him, for political reasons, to divorce his beloved wife Vipsania. The tangled and incestuous family tree of the Caesars was such that Julia, whom he was now ordered to marry, was simultaneously his sister-by-adoption and his step-mother-in-law! The two of them did not get well. One would have thought that all this, together with the later death of his son (possibly murdered; according to the scandal-mongers, no member of the imperial family ever died a natural death!) would have been enough to make anyone embittered!

Also worth a trek on Capri, though it is on the opposite end of the island from the Villa Jovis, is the Villa San Michele, created by the Swedish-born doctor Alex Munthe. It is celebrated in his entertaining but grossly sentimental autobiography "The Story of San Michele"; a world-wide best-seller ever since its publication more than eighty years ago. On the very first pages, Munthe discovers that Tiberius still has an unsavoury reputation on Capri, when he stumbles over a chunk of marble from one of the ancient villas and a peasant girl exclaims, "Timberio camorrista!" - "Timberio" being the local dialect version of the emperor's name, and "camorrista" referring to the Camorra, the much-feared Neapolitan equivalent of the Mafia (still very active today!); the implication being that Tiberius lived on in folk-memory as a thoroughly evil man. But later on, Munthe comes to sympathize with the grim old emperor, conscientiously carrying out his administrative duties into extreme old age, yet resentfully aware that no-one appreciated his work but that everybody hated him.
     We know of politicians with that problem today; though hopefully they do not seek relief from the stresses of office in the same way as is alleged against the Emperor Tiberius!

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Nelson and Wellington: their only meeting

Nelson and Wellington, the two great British heroes of the Napoleonic Wars, met only once. The date was September 12th, 1805, and the war between Britain and France had been renewed after a brief period of peace. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, had built up an alliance with the Russian and Austrian Empires, and there was the prospect of a British expedition to Germany to fight Napoleon. The future Duke of Wellington, then plain Arthur Wellesley, aged 36 and recently returned home after nine years' service in India, had called at the Colonial Office in Downing Street to see the cabinet minister, Lord Castlereagh. In the waiting room he encountered a naval officer whom he immediately recognized by his missing right arm as being the famous Admiral Lord Nelson. Nelson, however, could not be expected to recognize the Anglo-Irish major-general nine years younger than himself; and in Wellington's later recollection, as told to John Wilson Croker:
     "He entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation; for it was almost all on his side, and all about himself; and really in a style so vain and silly as to surprise and almost disgust me".
     (This rather bears out the assessment of Nelson made by Admiral Lord St. Vincent, who was once his commanding officer: "A great captain at sea, but a foolish little fellow on land").
     However, Nelson then left the room, and someone must have told him that the unknown army officer was actually someone worthy of his attention, for when he came back his whole attitude had changed:
   "All that I thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked with good sense and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact he talked like an officer and a statesman ..... I don't know that I had a conversation that interested me more".
     Nelson, it appears, criticized the government's plan to send an expedition to northern Germany, suggesting instead a campaign to expel the French from Sardinia, which he thought made more strategic sense and had a better chance of success. An imaginative painting of the meeting of the two great war leaders shows Nelson pointing at Sardinia on a map, to emphasize his point. Neither man is looking at the map!
The very next day Nelson left London to join his flagship, H.M.S. Victory at Portsmouth, from where he would sail to find death and immortality at the battle of Trafalgar. Wellington's great achievements were still to come.In later life he reflected how fortunate he had been to meet Nelson, and, despite the bad first impressions, to realize that "he was really a very superior person".

(A full account of the meeting can be found in Elizabeth Longford's biography of Wellington; volume 1, chapter 7)

See also: my later post on the Duke of Wellington's duel in 1829

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Cock-up at Belzec death camp: How not to impress the inspectors!

Belzec, near Lvov in Poland, was one of the principal Nazi death camps. It began to operate in March 1942,  using carbon monoxide from a diesel engine to gas Polish Jews. Compared with Auschwitz it is little known, for the simple reason that there were hardly any survivors. The commandant was Christian Wirth (nicknamed "the savage Christian"), who had formerly worked on the "T4" programme for gassing the mentally ill. The camp was under the ultimate authority of Otto Globocnik, the S.S. commander in south-east Poland.

In May and June 1942 thousands of Jews were murdered in Belzec, but Wirth soon realised that the gas chambers were inadequate for the magnitude of the task, and so he had six replacements built. The new centre was a concrete building with a flat roof, labelled "Bathing and inhilation rooms", and camouflaged from the air with netting and tree branches.Victims entered the gas chambers from a corridor, but there were also doors opening to the outside, to facilitate the removal of bodies by the Sonderkommandos: Jews whose lives were spared for the time being, doing the dirty work. The diesel engine was housed in a separate shed. At its peak, Belzec could process fifteen thousand victims a day. By the end of 1942, almost half a million Jews had perished in Belzec; almost all of them from Poland.

There are hardly any known survivors of Belzec, though one Sonderkommando Jew lived to tell the tale. Chaim Hirzman from Zaklikow was selected for his gruesome task "because he had a military bearing". He described the shaving of the hair of victims, the public hanging of would-be escapees, and on one occasion the burial alive of a group of tiny children. The guards were generally mindlessly brutal, but on Sundays they relaxed by playing football with the Sonderkommando men, and even on occasion allowed them to win!

Kurt Gerstein, an S.S. man who committed suicide in 1945, left a description of Belzec from when he attended Otto Globocnik on a visit to the camp in August 1942. They saw over 6,000 Jews, including many children, brought by train from Lvov. Ukrainian guards drove them out, and removed the bodies of more than 1,400 who had died during the voyage. The Jews were made to hand over their clothes and spectacles, had their hair cut off, and were forced naked into the gas chambers: seven to eight hundred people crammed into ninety square metres. But then, as as is all too common with demonstrations laid on for distinguished visitors, things went horribly wrong. The diesel engine refused to start. For two and three quarter hours the mechanics tinkered unavailingly with it, while a furious and doubtless highly embarrassed Christian Wirth struck out at the Ukrainian helpers with his whip. Through a glass porthole the trapped Jews could be observed weeping as they waited for death. Apparently no-one considered letting them out. When the engine eventually got going, the monoxide took a further half hour to kill them all. A Sonderkommando of other Jews then dragged out the bodies, removed any gold from the teeth, and dumped them in a mass grave where they were left to rot. Globocnik told Gerstein that the whole operation was top secret, and anyone gossiping about it would be shot. He was dissatisfied with the efficiency of the system, which is scarcely surprising under the circumstances, and recommended cyanide gas as an alternative; but Wirth felt his personal pride was at stake, and rejected this advice.

Globocnik claimed that Hitler himself had visited the site and praised his conduct of the operation, but there is no other evidence to support this claim. It is probably just as well that Hitler did not come: heaven knows what cock-ups the German version of Murphy's Law would have had in store for an inspection by the Fuhrer!

  Some years ago I taught a Polish student who had come to Britain for his "A" levels. I asked him what he had been told back home about the fact that all the Nazi death camps (Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz and Majdanek) were in Poland. "Nothing!" he said firmly. I'm still wondering what to make of this.    

Friday, 5 July 2013

Sir Robert Walpole's Wealth

 This summer, some of the pictures from the magnificent collection of Sir Robert Walpole are being temporarily returned to Walpole's great mansion: Houghton Hall, in Norfolk; from where Walpole's incompetent grandson had had to sell them to Catherine the Great of Russia to pay off his gambling debts. This would be an appropriate time to examine the sources of Walpole's wealth, and how it was viewed by his contemporaries. (To put the figures in context, we must remember that the majority of families in England at the time had an annual income of not more than £20)

The Walpole family had been landowning gentry in north-east Norfolk for many generations, gradually increasing their wealth by purchase of land and prudent marriages, but had never been of any significance on a national scale. In 1689, however, Robert Walpole, the father of the man usually reckoned to be Britain's first Prime Minister, felt confident enough to spend several hundred pounds getting himself elected as Member of Parliament for Castle Rising; a local constituency with no more than a handful of voters. But this seems to have been the limit of his ambitions, for over the next ten years he remained a silent back-bencher. When he came to London to attend Parliament, he lived frugally. Then in 1700 he died, aged only 50.
     The future Prime Minister, was born in 1676. He was the third son, and was originally intended  for a career in the Church, but both his elder brothers died in early manhood, leaving him the heir. He progressed through Eton and King's College, Cambridge, and, just before his father's death, to marriage with the daughter of a London merchant.
     Directly after the funeral, Robert Walpole arranged to be elected to his father's seat in Parliament, and then set out for London. For the rest of his career he would not return to Norfolk for more than a few weeks a year. Like his father, he gave his support to the Whig party, but he had no intention of remaining an anonymous back-bencher. From the very start, he was determined to become a great man.
     The Whigs were led by a clique of great nobles known as the "Junto". Walpole's approach to them was twofold. Firstly, he could make himself useful to them in the House of Commons. But secondly, he wanted to be able to mix with them socially, and for this he would need to spend large amounts of money. So he rented a house in the best part of town, he bought the most fashionable clothes for himself and his wife, and he entertained lavishly, with the finest food and wines. Soon he was elected to the Kit-Cat Club, where the rising young Whigs met, and in 1706 he was able to give a Christmas ball which the Duke of Grafton condescended to attend. Soon after he cemented an important personal alliance when his sister Dorothy married another up-and-coming young Norfolk Whig: Viscount Townshend. Walpole and Townshend were to work together as a partnership for the next quarter of a century: Walpole dealing with finance and political management; Townshend the foreign policy expert.
     Where was the money to come from? Whenever possible he bought from local dealers back home in Lynn, and then left the bills unpaid for years. His steward's wages were said to be twelve years in arrears - though his servants would have done well by tips from aristocratic guests. But ultimately the only way to make a lot of money very quickly was to get into government, and get his hand in the public till. (This is a characteristic of early societies, and could still be seen in the 20th century: consider the highly corrupt government of President Harding of the USA in the 1920s, or the way certain Third World dictators would pile up millions in a Swiss bank)

Circumstances favoured Walpole. The reign of Queen Anne (1702-14) was dominated by the War of the Spanish Succession, in which an alliance of Britain, Holland, the Austrian Empire and various smaller powers took on and defeated the France of Louis XIV. The war is best remembered for the Duke of Marlborough's four great victories over the French, but its economic and political impact was just as important. Britain was a much less rich country than France, but was able to fight the war because of its more sophisticated financial structures: the National Debt and the Bank of England. The war was essentially fought with borrowed money, and it saw the emergence of the City of London as Europe's greatest financial centre. The Whig party fully supported the war; the Tories were increasingly critical of the mounting debts and taxes and the rise of dubious-looking money-men, and were eager for a compromise peace. In 1706 Walpole was made a member of the Naval Council (where he used his influence to run his own smuggled goods through Lynn), and in 1708, when most Tories were forced out of the government, he was appointed Secretary-at-War.
     Large sums of money now began to pass through his hands, and much of it remained in them. Effectively there was no clear distinction between funds that an official could use for his personal benefit and what was held for the nation; and government contracts, which in wartime were vast and lucrative, were awarded through bribery and political favouritism. Fortunes could be made, as they always had been, by what would nowadays be straightforward embezzlement and corruption. But debate in Parliament was freer than before, and Walpole's opponents were able to draw attention to his activities in a way that had not been possible in previous centuries. It was not long before they caught up with him.

In 1710 the Whig government fell: the Tories under Robert Harley came into power, and swept the country in a general election landslide the next year. The great Duke of Marlborough was sacked from his command of the army, and peace negotiations began with France. Walpole's career now appeared to be in ruins. In January 1712 he was charged with corruption, expelled from the House of Commons and sent to the Tower. His situation was so bad that when his wife visited him, she had to borrow the cost of a carriage from her maid! He was released after six months, but did not regain his place in Parliament until the next election in 1714; by which time the Tories had negotiated a peace treaty with France at Utrecht. Walpole's prospects did not look bright, but luck was on his side.

Queen Anne died, and George of Hanover was proclaimed King. He thought himself badly let down by the terms of Utrecht, and he hated all Tories in consequence. The Whigs returned to office, with Townshend Secretary of State and Walpole Paymaster-General. This was only a minor position, but notorious as one where it was possible to make large amounts of money. Walpole is supposed to have said that "He needed some fat on his bones". He was quite right: over the next four years, over £152,000 passed through his account with the banker Robert Mann; some spent on investments, but the majority on personal expenditure. There was then a struggle for power within the Whig party, and Walpole and Townshend  were out of office for a couple of years; but the scandal of the South Sea Bubble and several fortuitous deaths amongst the Whig leadership meant that they were soon firmly entrenched in power. Walpole the held the offices of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer until 1742, and is usually styled Britain's first Prime Minister (see my separate piece on this). Once again the money flowed in.

Much of Walpole's personal accounts have survived, and the figures are staggering. In 1733 he spent over £1000 on wine from just one of his dealers, and returned 552 dozen empty bottles. On one single day he spent £543 on clothes. He gave his brother a watch costing £68. His annual bill for chocolates alone came to  £17: considerably more than a labourer could expect to earn in a year. He refurbished the family home at Houghton in Norfolk, but in 1721 he decided that the rambling old house was insufficiently grand for a man of his importance, so it was razed to the ground, and a new Houghton Hall was erected in its place. The project took many years to complete. A whole village, which spoiled the vista, was demolished and rebuilt outside the gates of the estate.                                                  
The finest architects, decorators and garden designers were employed; the very best furniture installed. It was said to be the most splendid house in England: certainly better than any palace the King owned. Walpole bought up paintings and statuary from auctions, and his government's ambassadors and agents in France and Italy searched out works by the great masters, regardless of cost. He came to own works by Titian, Rubens, Raphael, Poussin and many others. At his death the whole collection was valued at almost £34,000. And yet within two generations no fewer than 198 of them were to be found in St. Petersburg, the property of Catherine the Great of Russia.
    The money for all this came ultimately from the public purse. Walpole was lavish in his use of sinecures (that is, positions which carried a salary but involved little or no actual work) to reward followers, friends, and his own family. His eldest son was given the position of Ranger of Richmond Park in 1726, and immediately appointed his father as his deputy, so that Sir Robert could use, as a retreat, the pleasant house outside London which went with the job. His youngest son, Horace, was provided with an income of £3,400 a year as Teller of the Exchequer, and was able to enjoy a long and extremely comfortable life as a writer and observer of the political scene. Even Walpole's mistress, Maria Skerrett, and their daughter Catherine received £1,000 a year of public money from various sinecures.

But Walpole faced a very vocal opposition.The press had escaped from government censorship under William III, and there was now a large reading public, especially in London, where there was a strong tradition of opposition to the government. An anti-Walpole weekly magazine, "The Craftsman", began publication in December 1726, and always focused on his corruption, as being the most vulnerable aspect of his administration. The wildly libelous "History of the Norfolk Steward" formed a serial in the magazine. Anti-Walpole ballads were very popular:-

"Good people draw near
And a tale you shall hear
A story concerning one Robin
Who from not worth a jot
A vast fortune has got
From politics, brokers and jobbing.

Now all of you know
How a few years ago
He scarce had a guinea his fob in,
But by bribing his friends
To serve his dark ends,
Now worth a full million is Robin".

and so on, for verse after verse.

Walpole made many attempts to crush the opposition press, but without much success, and his own hired propagandists were far less effective. Historians who admired Walpole used to argue that his corrupt methods must be judged by the standards of the time; but in fact attitudes were changing. Walpole's gross corruption (which even his son Horace did not deny) was becoming less acceptable. Walpole's opponents were much more distinguished figures than his supporters. He has been dubbed "the poets' foe": almost all the great writers of the time detested him. Jonathon Swift was a disappointed Tory, who published the satirical "Gulliver's Travels" in 1726 and denounced Walpole's Irish policy in the "Drapier's Letters". Alexander Pope, the greatest poet of the age, was a Roman Catholic, and thus denied any political rights. John Gay's popular "Beggar's Opera" (1728) contained several characters embodying the corrupt Walpole era: Macheath the highwayman, Lockit the gaoler and Peachum the receiver of stolen goods who doubled as an informer. Amongst the younger generation of intellectuals, Dr. Johnson was a lifelong Tory who hated all Whigs. Henry Fielding began his career as the author of violently anti-Walpole plays until censorship of the theatre obliged him to turn to novel-writing. His "The History of Jonathon Wild the Great" (1743) which purported to be about the criminal exploits of London's most notorious gangster of the early 18th century, pointedly drew a parallel between Wild and Walpole, to suggest that the political leaders were only gangsters on a larger scale.

How popular was Walpole in the country? It used to be argued that he had given Britain a period of much-needed peace and stability, after the thirty years of war, invasion threats, spiralling debt and political turmoil that had followed the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. Here again, old assessments have been challenged. Britain was at peace with Europe under Walpole, but the return of war at the start of the 1740s saw the country woefully unprepared, both in terms of allies and of armaments. Under Walpole's leadership the Whigs, who had once been a radical, quasi-republican party, more and more came to resemble an unpopular oligarchy, clinging to power by corrupt methods, and dependent on a monarch who was grossly biased in their favour. Almost certainly the Tories won more votes than Walpole in the General Election of 1734, and the next election in 1741 soon led to his overthrow.

Walpole was the end of a tradition in the matter of gross corruption: it is noticeable that his most important successors in the 18th century, Henry Pelham, Lord North and William Pitt the younger, made no money out of their political careers.

(See also, my earlier post on Walpole as Britain's first Prime Minister)

(In memory of the late, great, Professor J. H. Plumb, who first taught me about Walpole)

Monday, 1 July 2013

A harbinger of summer

Spring came very late this year, with a fortnight of unseasonal frosts in March and April, but then all the flowers emerged with a rush, and the fruit is looking promising.
     I call this picture of a solitary violet "A harbinger of summer".