Sunday, 13 February 2011

Should Suetonius be available to 7 year olds?

Suetonius wrote the Twelve Caesars, perhaps the most easily read classical history (of an admittedly small number) I’ve ever read. It’s a little bit gossipy but a nice read and unlike the splendid if lengthy Thucydides he never has a sentence that lasts 8 lines of text.

It does, however, serve as an example of a problem classical history has regarding young people and those of a slightly sensitive disposition. It strolls merrily along recounting early imperial history, and out of nowhere rather despicable acts are reported. I’m not going to dwell on the worst of them, suffice to say that people easily upset will be upset, and I was surprised to be quite so affected by one of the reported actions of Tiberius.

I’m not for one moment suggesting revisionism should take place (I despise the attempt to inflict modern ethics or social norms upon books of their time, such as Mark Twain’s books). Abridged versions are a possibility, though I rather dislike those as well.

There’s plenty of swearing and violence and sex in modern literature (such as the excellent First Law Trilogy I reviewed recently, which also has some torture) but it’s rarer to have explicit references to the kind of inhuman depravity a number of Roman Emperors got up to.

Should an age limitation be set on certain books, whether recommended or binding? It’s rather hard to say. I like classical history, but have difficulty reconciling the availability (indeed, the literally free availability via Kindle and other eReaders of some electronic versions) of books with the fact that many of them contain pretty horrific episodes in human history.

Now I come to think of it, are booksellers permitted to refuse to sell a book to someone based on age alone? Should they be?

I imagine they would if a kid wanted to buy a modern book of a blatantly sexual nature, but what if they wanted to buy classical history covering the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula?

An age classification system would perhaps work, yet it just feels wrong, somehow.



  1. When I was at school they even censored Shakespeare; e.g. the version of MacBeth they gave us for 'O' level had the porter's lines about drink provoking desire but taking away performance removed.

    I have not read Suetonius, but does he go into gory detail? If he doesn't I don't think there is a problem. Any child able to cope with a grown up text on ancient history is most unlikely to have a problem with the fact that Tiberious committed such and such despicable act.

    Pornography used to be defined as materiel that would tend to deprave and corrupt. I don't think there are many historians, ancient or modern, who produce books that would fall into that category. Those books by Lord Norwich you recommended are chock full of poisonings, executions and maimings ordered by emperors both sane and off their heads, but they contain nothing that would stop me letting a child who wanted to read them from doing so.

    "Emperor X acted on the rumour that his nephew was plotting against him by banishing him to island Y, and ordering his nose and hands to be cut off", is the sort of thing you'll find in Norwich. "Because Roman law forbade the execution of virgins, Emperor Z ordered that Q's daughters should be raped before they were killed", is an example of what you are likely to find in Graves. Would my son have been depraved and corrupted by reading such stuff? No. Should I be concerned that he was even exposed to it? No, I would have been delighted if, when he was pre-pubescent, he wanted to and could read Norwich and Graves.

    I think you are worrying too much.

  2. I remember that line, uttered by the porter.

    You may be right. I just wonder sometimes at age restrictions and guidelines. It's a different field entirely, but I was surprised Metal gear Solid 3 (features some electrocution torture) was 15 whereas God of War 2 (filled with what I consider comedically over the top violence) was an 18.

    Likewise, the 'wardrobe malfunction' of Janet Jackson prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but in the video of Toxic Britney Spears is not exactly prudish.