Under Tiberius, by Nick Tosches (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2015, ISBN 978-0316405669). 336 pp. Hardcover, $26.00.
As Under Tiberius draws to a close, its narrator, Gaius Fulvius Falconius, knows he is dying. Bedridden and in pain, Falconius holds no hope for an afterlife. And though he sees the world that he is about to depart as one where culpability and forgiveness “are mere fancies,” Falconius finds that he is haunted by both. “Such was the end of my friend,” he laments, invoking the man, now long dead, once his coconspirator, of whom his story is told. “He is dust, as I soon will be ashes, unremembered.” That man, whom with the power of oratory Falconius had groomed from a petty thief into an illusion to which others had “offered up their purses as eagerly as they offered up their souls,” was Jesus of Nazareth.
Billed as “America’s last literary outlaw,” Nick Tosches is the author of numerous works of iconoclastic spirit, such as In the Hand of Dante, featuring a stolen manuscript of The Divine Comedy, and Me and the Devil, whose protagonist is a writer addicted to women’s blood, as well as biographies of such notables as Jerry Lee Lewis and Arnold Rothstein. In Under Tiberius, Tosches treats the Christ of the Gospels with a no less remorseless hand.
The novel is framed as memoir, written by the aged Roman aristocrat to his grandson. Wthin its first pages, the voice of Falconius comes to full and vigorous life, recounting the rise and fall of his career as speechwriter for the Emperor Tiberius. Falconius’s well-crafted lies, placed in the mouth of Tiberius, recast “horrible truth into beauteous falsehoods,” transmuting through their eloquence the emperor’s betrayals and thefts into acts of charity and beneficence. “All words are mercenary,” he proclaims, noting that language serves with equal faithfulness poets as well as tyrants, a Virgil no less than a Caesar. This trenchant observation is not lost on the reader, especially in this particular political season. Modern-day demagogues may be no less productive in their malfeasance than their ancient counterparts, but the quality of their oratory has gone considerably downhill.
After losing the emperor’s favor, Falconius finds himself banished to Judea. As he wanders the provincial capital, Caesarea, pondering the unwelcome turn in his fate, he notes the presence of the “ranting or mumbling messiahs” holding court on the streets, some ignored, others drawing small crowds of passing listeners. Rising above the squalor is Herod’s palace. While thinking of “gods and men,” Falconius becomes aware that someone has been following a few paces behind, possibly a beggar or thief:
In a dark by-way, I came upon my loiterer. The marble of the palace, which glowed pale blue in the distance, was immediately overtaken by something that glowed pale brown, like amber, in his eyes. . . . If there was thought in my mind, it left me in that moment. He saw my gaze and smiled. It was a smile of faint, aloof malevolence, a curse of a smile.
Those eyes, attractive and deceptively soft, radiate a wary, observant intelligence. In the glance exchanged between Roman aristocrat and Jewish thief, the two men see the reflection of one in the other. At that moment, Falconius has an epiphany. In a wave of “wild envisioning,” he sees
the riches of Mithras, the riches of Cybele, the riches of the pontiffs of the temples of the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. I saw the riches of the high priests and the rulers of the synagogues of the cults of the Jews in Judea. . . . I saw that every prayer was a profession of the ignorance and benighted folly of he who knelt, that he who prayed avowed himself a fool for the taking. I saw lambs to the slaughter. I saw fortunes falling from the hands of believers into the coffer of the believed.
In Rome, Falconius had given the capricious and paranoid Tiberius his dignity, had created the illusion of the emperor’s sagacity and omnipotence, and had cultivated a god of him. Falconius determines that what he had done before in Rome he could do again. Here, with no master to restrict his talent, he would be free to “mold and fashion a new prophet” for Judea’s savior-hungry masses. He approaches this man and asks his name. In the dirt of the street the man scrawls six letters in Greek, Iesous.“I am he,” he says.
Tosches’s research rewards with some fascinating asides, such as a visit to an argentarium, the ancient equivalent of a bank, where Falconius goes to deposit their cache of silver and gold as it grows alarmingly large. One can find occasion to scowl at an anachronism (would an inn of the period truly have kept a library of expensive scrolls for its guests to read?) or quibble with some point of fact, but when Tosches chooses to so digress he does so with wit and a measure of sardonic humor. Now and again Tosches’s masterful, often beautiful prose is smudged with a heavy hand. To all such criticisms the author, who is self-taught in Latin and Greek, offers what is probably his preemptive rejoinder, when he quotes in the book’s opening pages a line from Catullus: “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.”*
But it is not in such details that Tosches wishes to engage us. More than anything else, the novel is driven by an unflinching observation that belief, lies, and delusion all serve the same master called “Hope.” “To be the concealer of his perfidies was a perfidy from which I wished to be concealed,” Falconius admits early on, referring to Tiberius. This turn of phrase captures the essence of Under Tiberius—Falconius, the professional deceiver, this Father of Lies, with his deathbed confession of the truth reveals that he had unwittingly birthed an even more monumental deception. Those “mercenary words” that served so well the falsehoods of Tiberius would one day serve in equal measure the beautiful illusions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
As they wander the countryside, Jesus preaching while Falconius collects contributions for a “new Temple” that will be promptly deposited with the argentarius, the power of the illusion begins to make itself manifest. The audience to Jesus’s “beauteous falsehoods” bends the truth to serve their hopes, multiplying his acts of “healing” and magnifying his sleight-of-hand fakir’s tricks into miracles. Even Falconius, in the course of studying these people to better dupe them, is not unaffected. He begins to see the world through the lens of their holy book, becoming intrigued with the beauty of the land and its “pall-cloud of suffering.” Witnessing a festival in the city of Sepphoris, he becomes lost to the joyous singing and blasting of horns into the night, for a few hours forgetting Rome, Tiberius, and their plot. Falconius realizes that the Jew he had at first referred to as “my loiterer,” a mere means to an end, has become his friend.
But it is Jesus though, enrobed in the words that Falconius has made for him, who is most affected. The role of savior he has donned like a costume begins to subsume him, and his behavior becomes conflicted, erratic. Falconius worries aloud that perhaps it is time to cash out and leave for Rome to enjoy the fruits of their deception. But neither of them can admit to the other that it has come time to end the game. They succumb to hope, convincing themselves that luck will hold out just a while longer.
The character of Jesus of Nazareth holds a continuing fascination in Western literature. Multiple treatments in past decades, from Kazantzakis to Burgess and Mailer, attempt to reclaim him from theology for a secular audience. Tosches stops not at merely at demystifying the character but inverts him, portraying Jesus as profane and dissolute, a mocker of pieties, godless. In a word, Tosches’s Jesus is an anti-Christ. Yet, though unabashedly blasphemous, Tosches’s character is unapologetically human. He is wry, sarcastic, full of dark humor. Therein lies our sympathy for him. By the end we find ourselves, like Falconius, mourning for the man we had come to know, knowing his memory will be lost to dust and ashes, extinguished by a beauteous falsehood.
* A response to critics more authors would think than dare put to print. From Poem XVI, “I will fuck your ass and fuck your mouth.”