The ancient Roman historian Suetonius and the 15th century diarist Johann Burchard recorded the lives of the rulers of their times. Suetonius wrote The Lives of the 12 Caesars, and Burchard’s writing focused on his employer, the Borgia Pope Alexander VI and his family.
Suetonius lived shortly after the time of the early imperial rulers of Rome, while Burchard was an eye-witness of events he recorded in Liber Notarum, an official account of papal events that did double duty as a gossip-filled diary of the times and morals.
The contemporaneous or near contemporaneous accounts of Suetonius and Burchard provide compelling details unavailable in chronicles written years or centuries after the fact.
Thanks to Suetonius we know about Julius Caesar’s capture by pirates, the orgies Augustus’ daughter catered, Caligula’s incestuous relationship with his sister and mother of his child, and so many other juicy anecdotes that continue to make an absorbing read centuries later.
Unfortunately, Suetonius may have been more of a partisan gossip than an objective historian. For unknown reasons, his employer, the Emperor Hadrian, hated the first 12 rulers of imperial Rome. Suetonius, Hadrian’s secretary, reflected his boss’s bias.
A native of Alsace, France, Burchard was a scholar and canon lawyer, the religious equivalent of a constitutional law professor today. Although he worked for Alexander VI, his account of the Borgias didn’t spare his employer’s reputation. Unlike Suetonius, Burchard provided a warts and all portrait of Alexander and his children. In fact, most of our surviving knowledge about the family comes from Burchard.
Liber Notarum describes a banquet organized by Cesare called the Ballet of the Chestnuts. Fifty high-class prostitutes and Roman dignitaries attended the orgy where chestnuts were inexplicably strewn on the floor. According to Burchard, “Prizes were offered…for those men who were most successful with the prostitutes.”
Johann Burchard in the Showtime miniseries, The Borgias
In A World Lit Only by Fire, historian William Manchester’s 1992 non-fiction history of the Renaissance, provides details Burchard may have been too embarrassed or prudish to record, such as the sex toys provided the revelers:
“Servants kept score of each man’s orgasms, for the pope greatly admired virility and measured a man’s machismo by his ejaculative capacity.” Manchester also reports that Alexander may have attended the orgy and devised the tally of orgasms.
Burchard repeats gossip about Lucrezia’s use of poison to dispatch enemies, her alleged incest with her father and brother, and tales of orgies and child-rape committed by Pope Alexander.
Showtime’s Borgias have less warts and evoke more sympathy than Burchard’s account, possibly in order to pander to modern sentiment that requires kinder, gentler protagonists an audience can identify with.
Jeremy Irons’ Alexander acts more like a flustered parent than a diabolical pervert. Showtime portrays Cesare’s relationship with Lucrezia as brotherly love not incest.
Any recreation of her father’s lethal pedophilia would be taboo because viewers have been sensitized by the ongoing pedophile priest scandal and the earlier McMartin pre-school witch hunt.
The best argument against Burchard and in favor of Showtime’s version comes from historians who have succeeded Burchard.
After the deaths of her psychopathic father and brother, Lucrezia led a blameless life without scandal as the Duchess of Ferrara. She remained faithful to her husband the duke during their 17-year marriage and died at 39 after giving birth to their eighth child.
The second season of The Borgias on Showtime debuts on Sunday, April 8.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders