Caricature

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