A certain leader of a powerful state is an erratic, controversial man. He indulges in cruelty and freely retaliates against those who betray him. Whenever he can, he escapes to a resort far from the seat of government. He doesn’t seem to like his job very much.

You know who that’s describing, right? (Hint: His name begins with “T.”) Tiberius, of course! Maybe you were thinking about someone else, however — and that’s the conceit of How to Be a Bad Emperor (2020), a recent installment in Princeton University Press’s “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers” series. The book features four Roman emperors who are bad in outrageous yet familiar ways. Caesar “had to be the best at everything — fighting, writing, even making love”; at the same time, he was insecure about his (lack of) hair and at one point appeared to have a comb-over. Rumor has it that Caligula tried to name his favorite horse a consul, a high-ranking magistrate. (There have been worse political appointments.) At the end of his troubled reign, Nero “allows himself to be distracted by insults thrown at him, is easily panicked, and through his indecisiveness eventually loses all of his allies.”


How to Be a Bad Emperor collates translated excerpts from Lives of the Caesars, a set of biographies by the historian Suetonius about Caesar and the 11 emperors who came after him. Suetonius, who lived and wrote during the early Roman Empire, knew quite a bit about emperors because he worked for two: Trajan and then Hadrian, as his secretary, until he was fired for being too informal with the empress. With Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius wanted to demystify his elevated subjects by drawing upon facts and rumors alike. The result is a vivid and unsettling study of what power does to people.

“In a reversal of the usual self-help formula,” the translator, Josiah Osgood, writes in the introduction, “How to Be a Bad Emperor becomes a guide to how you can be a good leader, whatever your role in life.”

All the books in the series — there are currently 13, with two more coming out in October — have titles in the “how-to” format: How to Run a Country, How to Be a Friend, How to Keep Your Cool, How to Think About War, How to Think About God, and the most recent: How to Drink, which might be especially popular in the age of COVID-19. They are translations of ancient works that juxtapose the text in the original language and an English rendering, usually with the former on one page and the latter on the opposite page; a layout popularized by Harvard University Press’s red-and-green Loeb Classical Library.

Rob Tempio, PUP’s publisher for philosophy, political theory, and the ancient world, describes the books as “gateway drugs,” as he hopes they’ll hook readers and entice them to read even more: A reader who studied the liberal arts in college rediscovers a love for old books. Someone who never read the classics before is suddenly curious. Cicero leads to Demosthenes, Thucydides to Herodotus.

“The idea is to provide an entrée into classical texts,” Tempio explains, “framed as how-to books for modern readers so that they can get a sense of how to approach these books and find them useful.” Many readers wouldn’t think to pick up Lives of the Caesars otherwise: They may not understand the significance and relevance of the text; they may assume that it is too difficult or boring. A familiar, approachable title bridges the past and the present.

While the shorter texts (such as the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero’s treatise On Old Age, which PUP repackaged as How to Grow Old) are published intact, others in the series consist of selections that the translator glued together to form a coherent body of instruction. How to Die, for example, gathers the Roman philosopher Seneca’s meditations on death, which are scattered across disparate works. The book’s chapters are titled according to the advice on offer: “Prepare yourself,” “Have no fear,” “Have no regrets,” “Set yourself free,” and “Become a part of the whole.” 

“He who fears death will never do anything to help the living,” Seneca tells us in the second chapter. “But he who knows that this was decreed the moment he was conceived will live by principle and at the same time will ensure, using the same power of mind, that nothing of what happens to him comes as a surprise.”

“[Seneca] never wrote a single treatise On Death, but he comes back to the theme again and again, no matter what title he was writing under,” says James S. Romm, the translator of How to Die. “So I thought it would be useful and clarifying to move those passages out of their context and assemble them into a whole. The theme was my guide. The lessons, I hope, are Seneca’s.”

Similarly, How to Win an Argument is a collection of writings by Marcus Tullius Cicero on rhetoric, translated by James M. May. Cicero was Rome’s greatest orator; in How to Win an Argument, he reveals his tricks. After a lengthy explication of rhetoric as a concept, its elements and functions, Cicero gives concrete advice to prospective orators. For example, he writes that his “first rule” is to find a good model for imitation. “The next thing, to be joined by this,” he goes on, “is practice, through which he must imitate and thus carefully reproduce his chosen model.” He also draws a connection between speaking well and writing well: “What is fundamental ... is something that, to be honest, we do least of all (for it involves a great deal of effort, which most of us try to avoid) — I mean writing as much as possible.”

Illustration: Nate Kitch

The How to series did not start out as a series. It started out as a single, stand-alone book: How to Win an Election, Philip Freeman’s translation of a letter sent by Quintus Tullius Cicero to his much more famous brother, advising him on his campaign for consul. How to Win an Election, which was published during the 2012 primary season, attracted readers with both its novelty and its timeliness. Quintus’s wisdom — such as the importance of hope in attracting votes — seemed especially pertinent as Barack Obama sought reelection. 

The book’s success inspired Tempio to ask Freeman if he had other ideas, and he did: The second book in the series was How to Run a Country, followed by How to Grow Old. “I would come to my colleagues and say, ‘I’ve got another book for our informal series,’” Tempio recalls. “And they would say, ‘Why don’t we make it a formal series?’ So we came up with ‘Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers.’”

How to Win an Election is still one of the series’ bestsellers, especially during election cycles. Other popular titles are How to Win an Argument, How to Grow Old, How to Die, and How to Be Free, perhaps due to the relatable topics. Timothy Wilkins, the sales director at PUP, says the books are reaching academic and nonacademic audiences alike, as evidenced by their popularity at both conferences and retailers. Blackwell’s of Oxford stocks the series, while Labyrinth Books in Princeton displays it right below the checkout counter. Tempio notes that a Thai publisher recently purchased the translation rights to a few of the books. In total, the series has sold more than 150,000 copies.

How useful is the advice the books offer? In a 2012 review of How to Win an Election for The New York Times, Garry Wills argues that Freeman’s translation distorts the context of the letter in an effort to make it more relevant to present-day politics. For example, one piece of Quintus’s advice has to do with his brother’s status as a novus homo, which Freeman translates as “outsider”: a descriptor that now reflects positively on a candidate, if the last couple of presidential elections are any indication.

But Wills points out that in Cicero’s time, novus homo — the first man in his family to become consul — was a pejorative, and being one was a political liability. “All through we are given this kind of false relevance,” Wills writes. In other words, if the advice seems timely, it’s because the translator made it so.

It makes sense that advice for a different type of election in a different time and place, under a different system, doesn’t neatly map onto the 21st-century United States. If anything, the expectation that people from the past can advise the present should be as strange as it is stubborn. And yet, the series’ popularity suggests that there is something compelling about ancient wisdom.

Tempio thinks ancient wisdom derives its allure in part from being ancient. “Just the fact that people were giving the same advice 2,000 years ago makes it appealing,” he says. “[It’s] the sense that they got something right even though the conditions were so radically different in many ways.”

But ancient wisdom doesn’t have to be right to be relevant, or relevant to be interesting. In the preface to How to Think About War, translator Johanna Hanink writes, “I wanted to acknowledge the disastrous course of action that Athens pursued at the time, despite the city’s renown for the rhetorical and deliberative culture epitomized in those very speeches.”

“It was very important for me,” she explains in an interview, “that Rob [Tempio] agreed to let me put a critical frame around Thucydides’s speeches. I think it’s critical to present these ancient texts as conversation starters, not absolute truths, because I think the past can be most useful when we look to it for questions rather than answers.”

Do we listen to Cicero because he gives good advice, or does Cicero seem to give good advice because we decided that he’s worth listening to?

Acknowledging that ancient wisdom is produced and received in different contexts can also be productive. One piece of advice from Seneca in How to Die is to “set yourself free” — in other words, to commit suicide. This may come across as bizarre and even tone-deaf in our era of increased suicide awareness and prevention activism.

“Seneca does not advocate the kind of suicide we mostly see today: deaths of despair or mental disturbance,” Romm says. “He speaks of what we now term ‘rational suicide,’ undertaken by someone in full possession of his or her faculties but suffering some pain or illness that makes life not worth living. We have ‘right to die’ laws in some states that address the same issue, and other states are trying to pass them.

“The other point is that Seneca lived in an autocracy where the emperor had sole right of life and death over aristocrats like Seneca,” Romm notes. “Forced suicide was a common occurrence and in fact the way Seneca himself met his end.”

Robert Kaster, a professor emeritus of classics at Princeton who wrote a blurb for How to Die, finds some of Seneca’s advice to be more useful than other suggestions. “Now in my 70s, I can take ‘prepare yourself’ to heart more easily than previously, though I don’t foresee an inclination to ‘set myself free’ in Seneca’s sense!” he says. “I don’t have the Stoics’ belief about the mind’s taking its place in the great cosmic Logos after death — easier for them, perhaps, since, being materialists, they took the mind to be a physical entity. But ‘have no fear’ and ‘have no regrets’ are pieces of advice I think anyone would benefit from working on.

“I also think that ancient wisdom should be valued not because it’s ancient but when it’s wise. We don’t need Aristotle on natural slavery, and there aren’t many — Musonius Rufus being the main exception — who did terribly well with women,” Kaster adds. “But there are elements of Stoicism, in particular, that I find not just worthwhile but quite beautiful.”

Of course, it is impossible to separate the credibility of dead white men from the authority that we afford dead white men, especially those from ancient Greece and Rome. Do we listen to Cicero because he gives good advice, or does Cicero seem to give good advice because we decided that he’s worth listening to? While the official name of the series is “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers,” the current collection consists exclusively of texts in Ancient Greek and Latin.

But Tempio says the “ancient” part was conceived in a broad way, and he resisted labeling the series “classical wisdom” in order not to limit the range to classical texts. “[The decision] wasn’t ideological per se, it’s just that it’s so much more interesting to think of ‘ancient’ in a broader sense,” he said. He has spoken to one person about doing a translation of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and another person about translating Chinese texts.

The series can also grow in other, important ways. Hanink is its first and only female translator (as well as the first woman to translate Thucydides into English), and there are no female authors, both of which Tempio hopes to change. “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers” may look very different in another eight years.

“Diversity is important, full stop,” Tempio says, noting that he hopes to cover “the full range of perspectives that might be on offer.” After all, he says, these are guides to ancient wisdom — “and if there is a patron god of a [book] series with wisdom in the title, it’s Athena.” 

Yung In Chae ’15 is a writer and editor-at-large of Eidolon, an online magazine for modern approaches to the classics.