Robert Hughes has enjoyed a long, successful run as a cultural commentator — for three decades he was art critic for Time magazine — and all-round provocateur. An Australian transplanted to the United States, he’s celebrated for his stylish, incisive writing as well as his television persona. With bestsellers about Modern Art (“The Shock of the New”), the founding of Australia (“The Fatal Shore”) and the Spanish master Goya, he’s won broad popularity while giving the back of his hand to figures and institutions that fail to meet his high standards.
Now in his mid-70s, having survived a life-threatening car wreck and years of legal wrangling, he appears to have emerged with his ambition intact and has turned his attention to Romein the same combative spirit as Hemingway used to talk about going 10 rounds with Tolstoy. Where a more faint-hearted author might have limited his focus, intimidated by a 3,000-year-old city that has spawned thousands of books and stirred the creative juices of literary geniuses from Virgil to Goethe, Stendhal to Henry James, Hughes refused to settle for anything less than the complete picture, from Romulus and Remus to Berlusconi.
The result is like an enormous antipasto table in a Roman trattoria where rare delicacies and traditional plates alternate with greasy leftovers and spoiled fish. Grateful though one may be for the tasty dishes, it’s difficult to understand, much less explain away, the disappointments. Perhaps Hughes’s mistakes about contemporary Rome come down to his never having lived in the city. Though he has often visited, he admits in the book’s first paragraph to staying for a week or two at a time, always in hotels. This puts him in the position of a bachelor who produces a marriage manual based on his experiences in speed dating.
As for Hughes’s dozens of howlers about ancient Rome, one hesitates to nitpick. Given the convolutions of Roman history and the enormity of the material he had to master, some mistakes were inevitable. But it’s troubling that the author and publisher heeded only some of the objections raised by distinguished scholars when the book appeared last summer in the United Kingdom and Australia. It’s equally troubling that an author so dependent on historical sources doesn’t provide a single footnote. In the Guardian, Cambridge classicist Mary Beard recommended that readers skip the first 200 pages and remarked that a history of the modern era marred by so many mistakes would have been pulped.
Now, nearly six months later, the U.S. edition appears with a few minor changes — e.g., misspellings in Latin amended; the opera “Tosca” properly attributed to Puccini, not Verdi. But the finished text remains riddled with errors that Beard and other reviewers enumerated. To cite just a few examples: Numidian King Jugurtha is said to have died in Caligula’s prison in 104 C.E. when in fact he died 200 years earlier. A pagan emperor, Antoninus Pius, is misidentified as a Christian. Pompey and Julius Caesar are called successors of the emperor Augustus when in fact they preceded him.