Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
In my fantasy, it is sprawling in the sun, by a Mediterranean swimming pool, with a bottle of wine, a bowl of olives and a new novel. But it is a fantasy (in real life it is always too hot, and you can’t quite manage to read easily in your sunglasses … and the wine makes you nod off anyway). The truth is that I enjoy sitting at my desk at home or in a library, with a pile of books in front of me, pen and notebook in hand (I still make notes in the old-fashioned way). A bit dull perhaps, but sensible.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I think that since she won the Booker Prize, no book by Bernardine Evaristo is unheard of, but I always used to bring up her “The Emperor’s Babe” in answer to this kind of question. It’s a novel in verse about a Black woman in Roman Britain and the Roman emperor Septimus Severus. I remember being sent it to review and, before I had actually opened it, being very sniffy about the whole idea. But I soon found that I was wrong to be sniffy. It’s smart, clever, super-imaginative.
What books got you interested in Ancient Rome and the classics?
There are two books in particular that prompted me to think that classics was a subject worth studying seriously. The first was Moses Finley’s “The World of Odysseus.” I had read quite a bit of Homer’s “Odyssey” at high school (some in Greek, but mostly in English!); but it was Finley’s book that made me see that you could think about the “Odyssey” historically and that there were big historical questions about what kind of society was being depicted, and whether it ever existed. Then there was E. R. Dodds’s “The Greeks and the Irrational.” It was the first book to make me see that there was as much “irrationality” as “rationality” in the ancient world — and so-called “irrationality” seemed much more exciting to me in the early 1970s.
What’s your favorite book to assign to and discuss with your students at Cambridge?
That has to be Tacitus’ “Annals,” a history of the early Roman Empire, written in the early second century C.E. I think that it is probably the sharpest analysis of political (and other) corruption ever written. But I really enjoy getting students to grips with the Latin. It is fiendishly difficult and in a way close to untranslatable (closer to James Joyce than to Edward Gibbon). And helping students to see what Tacitus is doing with that difficulty, that it is not born of perversity, but has a real point (in part, for Tacitus, corruption is best captured in corrupt language) … that is really rewarding. It’s worth learning Latin just to read Tacitus.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
An insight, rather than a thing … I am currently trying to understand the world of the Roman imperial court, the violence, the murder and yet in some sense the day-to-day normality of it all. I decided to reread Jonathan Spence’s “Emperor of China,” a constructed “autobiography” of K’ang-hsi, who ruled China in the late 17th and early 18th century C.E. What it made me understand better was what it was like to be a decent human being living in a world in which murder was an almost accepted part of the repertoire for solving problems.