Books interview: Jerry Toner

The author of Infamy: The Crimes of Ancient Rome on his fascination with the Romans and why he can’t read novels

June 27, 2019
Jerry Toner

What sort of books inspired you as a child?
For some reason I’ve always found the past more interesting than the future. As a child in the 1970s, I would read all kinds of history books but, looking back on it, they were incredibly narrowly focused – kings and queens of England, the Second World War and the like. That was what kids were given then. It wasn’t until I was doing A levels that I realised that other people had histories too and I started reading accounts written by former slaves in America, such as Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave.

Which books led you to devote your working life to the study of the ancient world?
Keith Hopkins was a brilliant lecturer and writer whose books Conquerors and Slaves and Death and Renewal first made me realise that there were different kinds of ancient history waiting to be written than the traditional accounts of great men and high politics. We didn’t get on at all personally, though, and it was Peter Garnsey and his books, such as Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World, who actually taught me how to write “history from below”.

Your new book explores ‘the crimes of ancient Rome’. Which books, ancient and modern, would you recommend for offering vivid accounts of Roman criminality?
You can’t do better than start with Suetonius and his life of the notorious emperor Nero. Just remember to have a large pinch of salt handy while reading it. Or if you like fiction, try reading Apuleius’ Golden Ass, whose protagonist is transformed into an ass and captured by a group of bandits. They are about as real as Robin Hood and his band, but it is a great read. There is surprisingly little written about Roman crime that doesn’t concentrate on the legal aspects and is pretty dry as a result. Two very readable books which contextualise the laws are John Crook’s Law and Life in Ancient Rome: 90 BC-AD 212 and Jill Harries’ Law and Crime in the Roman World.

Where can one find good accounts of the heritage of the Romans?
Peter Jones has written a number of really good popular books on the ancient world. I particularly liked Quid pro Quo: What the Romans Really Gave the English Language, which looks at the Latin words that have come into English and how differently the Romans themselves used them. I like books that are also critical about the ways that the ancient heritage has been used in the modern world. Mary Beard and John Henderson’s Classics: A Very Short Introduction does that excellently.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
I gave a student a copy of Bronisław Malinowski’s Magic, Science and Religion. It’s a bit dated now, but he first used fieldwork to understand the people of the Trobriand Islands from their own point of view, and in many ways this encapsulates what cultural historians are trying to do.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
My wife works on English literature and is always urging me to read Dickens, but I’m a lost cause when it comes to novels: “Full up years ago”, as Bertie Wooster used to say. I’m researching a book to be titled Risk in the Roman World and so my desk has a mound of volumes with grim titles such as Theories of Risk.

Jerry Toner is fellow in Classics at Churchill College, Cambridge. His latest book is Infamy: The Crimes of Ancient Rome (Profile).

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