How Not to Drink and Not to Rule an Empire

Princeton University Press’s series of edited classics brings two books dealing with comportment and self-control. Obsopoeus on drinking and Suetonius on the flaws of emperors are not intended as a pair but they overlap slightly. The personality flaws of emperors are present in persons of lesser status and both power and alcohol consumption encourage exposure of people’s darker sides.

Vincentius Obsopoeus (c. 1498-1539) was German humanist, who lived in Ansbach during the Reformation. He was a poet and translator, translating to and from Latin and German. De Arte Bibendi was first published in 1536. The following year a second edition was published, from which this volume is drawn. Obsopoeus was a lover of wine and his text is not admonitory, although he does offer advice about moderation and appropriate conduct. His text was criticised on moral grounds and put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Obsopoeus states “If you drink in an uneducated manner, wine will hurt you. If you’re educated about your drinking, though, wine is enjoyable and good.” He recommends drinking at home with one’s wife, where one will not be bothered and nobody will overhear one’s quips and slips. When a drinker goes out, he should choose his companions wisely. How often have we heard “Diversity is our strength”? For Obsopoeus, the opposite is true. “Harmony is rare among unequals; turmoil frequently arises from combining diversity and friendship. A sailor should drink with sailors; a soldier with soldiers, […] a drunkard with a drunkard. […] Everyone should seek out a peer that is, a person who suits them and their character – and make that person their drinking buddy.” Peers who are modest, mild-mannered, educated and dignified will not pressure you to drink and will provide necessary restraint. Beware of braggarts, belligerents, gossips, blasphemers and ex-monks.

Obsopoeus advises drinkers to be polite, relaxed, witty and deferential. Many comments seem modern, not something we would expect to read from a Reformation scholar. Avoid sex jokes and obscenity; do not gamble, spit or belch. He warns against becoming too drunk and drinking too often, though he does not give specifics. How are we to take the claim “I don’t approve of getting drunk in any circumstances”? Does he mean indiscriminate drinking or drinking to excess? Obsopoeus frames his discourse in terms of the ancient authors, Bacchus and the Muses and barely mentions Christianity, save admitting that drinking with Catholics is permissible.

On the subject of the degradation caused by alcohol, Obsopoeus takes up the simile of drunken vices as wild animals. Drunkenness is personified as a hideous hag, a terrible presentiment of the future of illness and disfigurement awaiting the drunkard.  Obsopoeus does not shy away from the suffering and indignity that alcohol can wreak upon the incautious or weak. It is in describing the drunk’s antics that Obsopoeus is at his most humorous. His depiction of binge drinking strikes one as bitingly accurate. Obsopoeus includes advice on drinking games, should the drinker find himself in such circumstances.

Michael Fontaine’s translation is freest so far in the series and is intended to be accessible. Readers will have their own responses to his decision to make iuvenes as “college kids”, “frat boys” and “kids” and his preference for “drunk” over “alcoholic”. The subject lends itself to such an informal approach. It was the correct decision to translate the original verse into prose.

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Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69-after 122 AD) wrote biographies of twelve consecutive emperors, starting with Julius Caesar. Suetonius’s accounts of the virtues and flaws of emperors are not wholly accurate. Romans tended to embroider tales of imperial excess as salutary examples of vice, so the stories Suetonius passed on are sometimes exaggerated or invented.

How to be a Bad Emperor includes a selection from Suetonius’s biographies made by Josiah Osgood and translated by him. The excerpts are of the vices of four emperors: Julius Cesar (100-66 BC), Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD), Caligula (12-41 AD) and Nero (37-64 AD). The salutary flaws Suetonius lists include mania for public honours (Julius Caesar, Caligula, Nero), hubris (Julius Caesar), ignoring omens (Julius Caesar), vanity (Julius Caesar, Caligula, Nero), neglect of duty (Tiberius, Caligula, Nero), sexual perversion (Tiberius, Caligula), sadism (Tiberius, Caligula), dipsomania (Tiberius), impulsivity (Caligula), paranoia (Caligula, Nero) and cowardice (Nero).

Julius Caesar’s failings were of pride, vanity and neglect rather than malice – positively minor flaws considering the vices of his successors. In the biography of Tiberius, Suetonius describes the tyranny of untrammelled authority, which we find in every era, our own included. “Not a day passed without people getting punished, not even days when public business was banned; some were put to death on New Year’s Day. Many were accused and condemned along with their children – and even by their children. It was forbidden for the relatives of those sentenced to death to mourn them. Special rewards were decreed to accusers, sometimes even to witnesses. Credence always was given to informers.”

Tiberius’s personal sadism gave licence to the sadism and vengeance of those in public positions. “Since by tradition it was forbidden for virgins to be strangled, young girls were first violated by the executioner, then strangled.” We have seen many regimes shaped in the image of their leader, where the depravity of a ruler inculcates a culture of excess at all levels of society. When, learning of a case of a visitor being tortured due to mistaken identity, Tiberius ordered him put to death for fear of him revealing his ordeal.

Caligula’s extremity is famed and well deserved. He had subjects killed in the most barbarous ways for the most minor of (actual or imagined) indirect slights, which included uttering the word “goat” in his presence. “He forced fathers to be present at the execution of their sons.” He would watch executions as entertainment whilst dining. He committed incest with his sisters. He developed a contempt and cruelty for his people as whole, wishing upon them disaster that he could master. In bouts of vengeful insecurity, he had statues of famous men destroyed. He suffered from epilepsy, which may have made him jealous of the non-afflicted. However, imperfection evinced in him no pity for the weakest and lowliest of his subjects. He was plagued with insomnia, which likely exacerbated his short temper.

Like Caligula before him, Nero considered himself a renaissance man: singer, actor, orator and sportsman. He competed in the Olympic Games, winning the laurels in chariot racing. He toured Greece to perform in front of the ancient world’s most knowledgeable audience. He locked the doors of the theatre when he performed in a move reminiscent of dictators of recent decades, who expected their audiences to applaud for minutes on end. Greed, incompetence and a lackadaisical attitude towards administration (rather than cruelty) undid Nero’s emperorship.


Both volumes include the Latin original facing the English translation. Notes and bibliography provide leads for academics and lay readers. The cloth spines and dust-jacket designs maintain the quality and stylistic unity of the series, previously covered by this reviewer.


Vincent Obsopoeus, Michael Fontaine (ed., trans, intro), How to Drink, Princeton University Press, 2020, cloth spine hardback, parallel Latin/English text, 192pp, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 6911 92147

Suetonius, Josiah Osgood (ed., trans, intro), How to be a Bad Emperor, Princeton University Press, 2020, cloth spine hardback, parallel Latin/English text, 312pp,  $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 6911 93991

© Alexander Adams 2020

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