Massie’s portrait of Tiberius follows an array of modern novels on Roman emperors. Robert Graves on Claudius, Marguerite Yourcenar on Hadrian, Gore Vidal on Julian, John Williams on Augustus, as well as Massie’s own AUGUSTUS (1986) come to mind. Each probes the psyche of its subject, yet Massie’s works are distinguished by their preoccupation with truth’s relationship to both biography and novelistic fiction.
The introduction of Massie’s present novel is conspicuously subtitled “by way of Disclaimer.” Its first sentence then mischievously echoes that of the Roman historian Titus Livius. Livy does not know whether it is worthwhile to attempt to chronologue Rome from its origins. Massie does not know, given his unreliable source, whether his “translation” constitutes fraud.
Massie presents factual details on the life of Tiberius that agree with the other accounts. He considers his subject’s rise to power and the paradoxical nature of Tiberius, a man who seems not to want the position fate assigns him. Ancillary to this vivid portrait, however, is the puckish query whether any text can convey absolute truth. The converse also applies: can any work of fiction (such as Massie’s novel) be absolutely false?
Massie’s source is ostensibly a Latin manuscript from Caltagirone, the monastery at which the eighteenth century alchemist and charlatan Cagliostro was educated.
Tiberius sounds like a French humanist in the asides of the novel; his ideas on duty and will resemble those of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. One follows this Tiberius through the military adventures of his youth, to sudden retirement on Rhodes, to Rome and the imperate, and finally to Capri. He seems, like many, to relish the quest, not the attainment.