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


‘Sleep with us’ exhorts an unconventional inn sign not far from here, which students have remarked upon. Sleep seems to be a recurrent topic in their conversation: it has become an issue for too many of them, and some of the theories in a book recently published* may help to explain why. Electronic devices have a lot to answer for.

Sleep is important in the minds of pupils: some are apprehensive about it, while others seem to love it; and it is of course a recurrent topos in literature.

Edward Young:
‘Tired Nature’s sweet restorer, balmy sleep!’
        Night Thoughts, line 1

‘Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more,
Macbeth does murder sleep’—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast…’
        Macbeth, Act II Scene 2
(A ravelled sleave, by the way, is a filament of silk that has frayed from its thread: Shakespeare, observant as usual, had presumably watched a seamstress skilfully ‘knitting’ them back into the fabric and making the surface of the garment smooth again.)

Horace, on how sleep visits the poor man but forsakes the rich and powerful:
‘destrictus ensis cui super inpia
cervice pendet, non Siculae dapes
dulcem elaborabunt saporem,
non avium citharaeque cantus

somnum reducent: somnus agrestium
lenis virorum non humilis domos
fastidit umbrosamque ripam,
non Zephyris agitata Tempe.
        Odes 3:1

Hypnos appears as a character in Iliad 14, when Hera, fond of summoning lesser immortals to assist with her schemes, finds him on the island of Lemnos and bribes him to send Zeus to sleep, so that Poseidon, unhindered, can help the Greeks in battle; and when he has done so, Hypnos goes to Poseidon to give him the all-clear.

Somnus is the god who puts Palinurus to sleep on a calm night in the Tyrrhenian Sea, to make him fall from his bench on Aeneas’s flagship and be drowned.

He is summoned by Juno, this time to give a dream to Alcyone, in Metamorphoses Book 11. Here Ovid, in his most felicitous mode, describes the Cave of Sleep (lines 592-612), where
ante fores antri fecunda papavera florent
innumeraeque herbae, quarum de lacte soporem
Nox legit et spargit per opacas umida terras.

In an appendix to his Roman Vergil, W. F. Jackson Knight suggests that the poet, like Ennius before him and Keats after him, may have used sleep as an enabler of his poetry: reading passages from his predecessors and mentors the night before, and finding that in the morning they had blended and produced something new: the inspiration that both Ennius and Keats refer to.

Of interest:

  • Keats, Sleep and Poetry.
  • Ennius, Fragmenta, passim


*Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, Penguin 2018