Nonfiction

Review: Fire and Fury and Twelve Caesars

By Ryan Hamilton

Reading Michael Wolf’s Fire and Fury over the break was interesting. It’s a fun read, not particularly intellectually demanding, and full of great moments, most of which have already been covered extensively and some of which have resulted in the apparent end of Steve Bannon’s political career.

Also over the break, I read another book that would seem, at first, incredibly different from Fire and Fury: Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars. It was written in the 2nd century and is a biography of Julius Caesar and the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Domitian. We do not know much about Suetonius, but he was secretary to the Emperor Hadrian, granting him access to documents needed to produce his work. His work is extensive, detailed, and it is an important source for historians of Imperial Rome. Roman histories can seem, compared to modern histories, slightly basic. At first glance, it seems like the authors write what they know, with little regard for citation, fact-checking and those other important bits of contemporary history. Some Roman histories are memoirs, which have their own authenticity issues.

However, Suetonius, to his credit, is not like that. He has done research and often discusses the stories he has researched and comes to a conclusion based on their credibility. For example, he discusses the popular story that Caesar spoke to Brutus (saying, “You too, my son,” or something similar, as Brutus killed him) but concludes that Caesar only grunted as he was stabbed. That desire to demythologize a story is very modern, and by doing that, he is remarkably similar to later scholars. He is not perfect, occasionally flubbing dates and relying a bit too much on prophecy (though that was a product of his time and cannot really be held against him).

Surprisingly, Suetonius bears a lot in common with Michael Wolff for one simple reason: both are storytellers. Michael Wolff would likely be very confused if you called him a historian and rightly so. His book will not be cited in any of the biographies of President Trump or books about his time in office, as it is poorly sourced and unreliable, with the possible exception of a discussion of how the book destroyed Bannon. Wolff did not write this book as a definitive, ultimate and accurate account of Trump as President. He wrote it because he knows people want to read it. People want to see the person behind the power. We’re curious about what’s happening in the White House and Wolff wants to satisfy that curiosity. The spicier the story, the better for him. If Trump has taught us anything, it now seems like volume is more important than veracity. Wolff did live on a White House couch for a few weeks and had access to Steve Bannon, Seb Gorka and Katie Walsh (among others). Therefore, his account cannot be dismissed. But this book was written because Steve Bannon wanted it to be written. Steve Bannon has a love for the past and a vision for the future. Making sure authors and reporters write about him as “The great manipulator” (as Time Magazine did) gets him the place in history he craves (you don’t get your place in history if nobody writes about you) and helped to undermine his rivals in the White House who tried to push Trump down a different path. Bannon’s firing and excommunication, both aided by his desire for publicity, seem to have disrupted those plans, but if anyone can bounce back, it’s Bannon. This book must be seen through that lens as well.

We’re curious about what’s happening in the White House and Wolff wants to satisfy that curiosity. The spicier the story, the better for him. If Trump has taught us anything, it now seems like volume is more important than veracity. Wolff did live on a White House couch for a few weeks and had access to Steve Bannon, Seb Gorka and Katie Walsh (among others). Therefore, his account cannot be dismissed. But this book was written because Steve Bannon wanted it to be written. Steve Bannon has a love for the past and a vision for the future. Making sure authors and reporters write about him as “The Great Manipulator” (as Time Magazine did) gets him the place in history he craves (you don’t get your place in history if nobody writes about you) and helped to undermine his rivals in the White House who tried to push Trump down a different path. Bannon’s firing and excommunication, both aided by his desire for publicity, seem to have disrupted those plans, but if anyone can bounce back, it’s Bannon. This book must be seen through that lens as well.

Now, back to Suetonius. Suetonius had a similar goal as Wolff. The desire to pull back the curtain on the lives of the powerful is universal. The first novel, the tale of Genji, took place in a royal Japanese court. Both Sophocles and Shakespeare wrote about the powerful and today’s reality TV is in the same vein. Calling it gossip is extremely unfair, as gossip implies lies that live on whispers. These works have truth, but truth comes along with the story rather than leading it. And sometimes the truth gets left behind, since the story comes first. That’s the one rule of those writers: tell a good story. That’s the rule Suetonius and Wolff follow. That’s why Suetonius records the odd actions of his subject. That’s what people want to read. They tell a story. People don’t want truth; they want a story.

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