I am at the home of a psychopath. Here on the easternmost point of the island of Capri, the ancient ruins of the Villa Jovis still cling to the summit of the mountain. This was the former residence of the Emperor Tiberius, who retired here for the last decade of his life in order to indulge in what Milton described as “his horrid lusts”. He conducted wild orgies for his nymphs and catamites. He forced children to swim between his thighs, calling them his “little fish”. He raped two brothers and broke their legs when they complained. He threw countless individuals to their deaths from a precipice looming high over the sea.
That these stories are unlikely to be true is beside the point; Tiberius’s reputation has done wonders for the tourist trade here on Capri. The historians Suetonius and Tacitus started the rumours and, with the help of successive generations of sensationalists, established a tradition that was to persist for almost two millennia.
All of which serves as a reminder that reputations can be constructed and sustained on the flimsiest of foundations. Suetonius and Tacitus were writing almost a century after the emperor’s death, and many of their lurid stories were doubtless echoes of those circulated by his most spiteful enemies. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of prurience. Who can deny that the more lascivious and outlandish acts of the Roman emperors are by far the most memorable? One thinks immediately of Caligula having sex with his siblings and appointing his horse as consul. Or Nero murdering his own mother, and taking a castrated slave for his bride, naming him after the wife he had kicked to death. For all their horror, who doesn’t feel cheated when such tales turn out to be false?
Our reputations are changelings: protean shades of other people’s imaginations. More often than not, they are birthed from a combination of uninformed prejudice and wishful thinking. And we should be in no doubt that in our online age, when lies are disseminated at lightning speed and casual defamation has become the activist’s principal strategy, reputations are harder to heal once tarnished.
I am tempted to feel pity for future historians. Quite how they will be expected to wade through endless reams of emails, texts, and other digital materials — an infinitude of conflicting narratives and individual “truths” — really is beyond me. At least when there is a dearth of primary sources it is possible to piggyback onto a firm conclusion. “Suetonius said…” has a satisfactory and definitive air, but only because there are so few of his contemporary voices available to contradict him.
As the culture war rumbles on, and I have found myself ostracised by former friends who now interpret even minor political disagreements as evidence of malevolence, I have learned that reputation is invariably a form of fiction. One such friend used to complain endlessly about a certain conservative commentator, asserting that he was a mendacious hatemonger whose every action was motivated by contempt for marginalised communities. These ideas were so frequently repeated in conversation, and confirmed by others within our circle, that I had no doubt they must be true. Imagine my confusion, then, when I eventually became well acquainted with this man, and found him to be both generous and empathetic. It’s like meeting Beelzebub and finding that he has been secretly baking cupcakes for the poor.
The same sense of bewilderment has struck me whenever I have happened upon bad-faith critics attempting to summarise my views. I have been variously described as “far-Right”, “bigoted”, “racist”, “sexist” and even “homophobic”. Of course, I would not expect total strangers to know my mind, but given that my actual opinions are freely available to anyone with a search engine, it does feel odd to be so wildly mischaracterised.
I am not alone in this. That false narratives can be more powerful than reality is, of course, the reason why our opponents so readily resort to distortions and smears. A colleague recently alerted me to one of the more bizarre hit pieces that has been written about me in an online magazine. The strategy was at least novel: the writer had contacted former students from my time as a teacher in order to trawl for unflattering anecdotes. According to one account, I had sent a pupil out of the classroom because he dared to disagree with me about the use of metaphorical language in Of Mice and Men.
But perhaps funnier than the story itself is that the author of this article was gulled into repeating it as though it could possibly be authentic. It is a reminder that reputations are often cultivated by those who must first suspend their critical faculties. This kind of nonsense is harmless enough, of course. It falls far short of defamation and, as RuPaul so neatly put it: “what other people think of me is none of my business.”
For all that, more serious attacks on people’s reputations can be devastating. Three years ago, I lost a friend to cancer after he had been falsely accused of sexual assault. In his final days he told me that he had no doubt that the years of intense anxiety following the trial had exacerbated his illness. The source of his distress wasn’t even so much the initial accusation, which was easily disproved in court, but rather the gossip that continued to reverberate and the loved ones who no longer picked up the phone.
In the past, I have often made the mistake of assuming the worst of my detractors, simply because a scurrilous lie has seemed more appealing than a complicated truth. Few of us who have been dragged into the deranging ideological skirmishes of the past few years will have avoided making these mistakes, but these days I like to keep in mind Philip Roth’s remark in The Human Stain: “our understanding of people must always be at best slightly wrong.”
No doubt it is hopelessly optimistic to assume that this approach will become the default. Our brains are hardwired to take mental shortcuts — known as heuristics — and we are generally more willing to believe the worst of others than make the effort to consider that we may have been misinformed. Worse still, the inherent appeal of scandalous and titillating tales means they will be propagated at an accelerated rate, so that even outright lies can quickly become received wisdom. We tend to accept that there is “no smoke without fire”, when more often than not it’s just a few troublemakers with a dry ice machine.
So perhaps we ought to give Tiberius the benefit of the doubt. In that spirit, let us consider one of Suetonius’s more flattering accounts. While living on the island of Rhodes, Tiberius remarked that he ought to visit all the sick people in the town. His servants assumed that this was some kind of decree, and the local invalids were hastily summoned. Rather than turn them away, Tiberius took the time to speak to each one and apologise for the misunderstanding. This story may not satisfy our appetite for murder and depravity, but at least it might be true.