Peter Stothard’s The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher

senecans-stothard-51dv9clhtalAlthough I look forward to voting for Hillary Clinton (our first woman president, yes?),  I am not particularly interested in politics.

Unless it’s ancient politics.

And I am a fan of Peter Stothard, so I picked up his new book.

In this lively new memoir,  The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher, he compares Margaret Thatcher to Nero and her advisors to Nero’s court, especially to Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who was Nero’s tutor and political advisor. As a deputy editor at the London Times, Stothard met often with Thatcher’s four main advisors, who gave him background for The Times’ political articles.  And they shared his interest in Seneca.

Stothard, an Oxford-educated classicist, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement (he retired this year) and  editor of The London Times from 1992-2002, is an elegant, lyrical, witty writer whose style transcends journalism.  He has written two brilliant memoirs, Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra (about his fascination with Cleopatra which I wrote about here and here) and  The Spartacus Road (which I wrote about here).

Even if you are not interested in English history and politics (and the only English history I know, she reveals self-mockingly, is the Tudors via Hilary Mantel and Jean Plaidy), this is a rich, complex, engrossing book. His account of the scenes behind the scenes of power are fascinating, if often grotesque, and I also learned much about the scenes behind the scenes in the newspaper business.  But the real hook for classicists and former Latin teachers like me? He organized a Latin class for the four men at a pub  and reviewed/taught conjugations and declensions and read and discussed Seneca.

Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard

The catalyst for The Senecans is a series of interviews in 2014 by a Miss R., a young historian researching the Thatcher era.  And Stothard was packing up his office for a move from Wapping, where he had worked for 30 years, so it was a good time for reminiscence.

Of the four main advisors in Thatcher’s court, Frank Johnson, David Hart, Sir Ronald Millar, and Lord Woodrow Wyatt, Stothard was most fascinated at first by David Hart, a playwright and film-maker as well as a politician. Stothard compared him to the Roman novelist Petronius’s famous character,  “a fictional tycoon called Trimalchio, a creation of a satire by one of Seneca’s own fellow courtiers in the age of Nero, a generous host who terrorized his guests with the theatre of food.”

Sir Ronald Millar disagreed with Stothard about David and Trimalchio.

David was not like Petronius’ monster.  Nor, however, Sir Ronald had to admit, was he quite unlike him either.  I was keen on Latin novels then. There are not many of them to read.  Gaius Petronius was one of the first comic novelists (his grander fans included T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence) and he wrote about food, drink, flattery, death and defecation.  He was Nero’s ‘arbiter of taste’, pet prose master and eventual victim.  Or, at least, some scholars think that he was.  Some think that there was more than one Petronius.  Gaius may not have been the name of either.  There is always uncertainty in distant history, almost always too in the kind that is close.


    Loeb edition

(Petronius’s Satyricon, or Satyrica, is one of my favorite books.)

All the advisors had very different backgrounds.  Frank Johnson, another writer at The Times, disagreed wtih Stothard’s journalistic philosophy: he disliked Stothard’s investigations of political corruption and scandals and thought The Times should only publish analyses biased in favor of Thatcher and the right.  (Later Johnson became an op/ed editor.)  But it was Frank who wanted Stothard to teach him Latin:  the two of them saved the Loebs (a series of classical texts with the Latin or Greek on the left page and the literal translation on the right) from a dumpster when the Times Library discarded them.

Frank wanted to read Cicero, but Stothard chose Seneca as their  subject.  They retired to The Old Rose, a pub, to “do” their Latin verbs and read Seneca.    Ronnie, a trained classicist and veteran playwright,  joined their Latin classes because he saw Seneca as a model politician who manipulated people and had lots of experience with cover-ups.  Woodrow Wyatt, a political journalist and former Labour MP turned right-wing, showed up soon, as did Hart…  They discussed Seneca’s philosophy, wealth, politics, and hypocrisy.

Stothard also writes about Beryl Bainbridge, literary cocktail parties, and collecting first editions and manuscripts.  He recommends Alan Hollinghurst’s  Man Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty as the best novel about the Thatcher Era.  (I read it and loved it.)

And he connects this book to Alexandria with more about his childhood and his friend V, a radical girl who was the daughter of Mr. V, a right-wing fanatic who had a sculpture of Seneca made from balsa wood…

What a good read!  Really colorful and enjoyable.  You can read it for the writing or the classics or the history or the politics.

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