It may or may not have been part of their intention: but by suppressing the details of their private lives, Shakespeare, Homer, Juvenal, and Tacitus—and others—have escaped being caricatured by subsequent generations.

The original word is Italian: caricatura, from the verb caricare, to burden or overload; and a caricature of a person is a representation in which certain of his or her features, habits, fears, likes, dislikes, ambitions or behaviour are emphasised to the point of obscuring the complex reality that constitutes a human being.

The OED describes a caricature as ‘A portrait or other artistic representation, in which the characteristic features of the original are exaggerated with ludicrous effect.’

It gives a further definition as ‘An exaggerated or debased likeness, imitation, or copy, naturally or unintentionally ludicrous.’

The danger with any short—and therefore selective—account of a person’s life is of descending into caricature. That danger is magnified if the account is given for the entertainment or titillation of an audience who are going to be more interested in one bad error than years of quiet achievement.

Caricature may not be deliberate, but the result remains.

Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, one colleague said, left him disgusted. It contains a great number of important facts, but a large part of it consists of anecdotes whose origin was report or gossip—many of them degrading or embarrassing.

In more general terms, this process of caricature by selection is inherent in history. Gibbon observes, when discovering how little is known about the reign of Trajan:

‘It is sincerely to be lamented, that whilst we are fatigued with the disgustful relation of Nero’s crimes and follies, we are reduced to collect the actions of Trajan from the glimmerings of an abridgement, or the doubtful light of panegyric.’

And similarly, he remarks on the reign of Antoninus Pius:

‘His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.’
      Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter III


“What’s it supposed to mean?” asked a sixth former. He had been sitting in a bus behind a girl whose T-shirt carried the legend ‘Follow your dream.’

“Seriously, what does it mean? How would you put that into Latin? somnium tuum sequere? What would that mean to a Roman? And wouldn’t the same would go for a Greek if you said δίωκε τὸν ὄνειρον?  I’ll tell you what it means: it’s American English for ‘do what you want.’”

I thought this was harsh, while admiring his zeal to detect semantic shifts—and his readiness to use dictionaries. I told a colleague, who enlarged on the theme: yes, he said, this is an Americanism, and the word dream is now used to sell houses and holidays—and also to inveigle the young into show business and commercial sport. And on that subject, he added, why are we becoming a nation of performers while the Chinese are producing and manufacturing things?  A bell rang at this point.

Some of this may be true, but some is not. This sense of dream may not have anything to correspond in Latin or Greek, but it has some pedigree in English, as appears from the OED, which has a long entry for the word. Its use in England to mean a national or personal aspiration seems to go back to the 18th century, though with a flavour of something unlikely or ill-advised.

By 7th Feb 1916, however, it has become something to admire. The OED quotes from the Chicago Tribune for that date: ‘If the American idea, the American hope, the American dream, and the structures which Americans have erected are not worth fighting for to maintain and protect, they were not worth fighting for to establish.’

And Martin Luther King sealed its respectability in 1963: ‘I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’

Neither somnus nor ὄνειρος is used in this way, as our student discovered. In classical literature, however, a dream in its original sense may be sent by a god to advise, to warn, or to mislead. They often appear at some pivotal moment, as does—among others in the Bible—Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven in Genesis 28.