Ancient Rome casts a long shadow over the world. It is the empire against which other powers are compared, its story one of vast expansion and ultimate decline and fall, and a mix of apparently “modern” sophistication and utterly alien cruelty. These days only a minority of people have ever studied classics or ancient history, so the Roman Republic is today largely forgotten. For most, Rome means emperors—men draped in sheets and wearing laurel wreaths. A cartoonist can draw a modern politician—albeit probably only a male one—like this, and invoke decadence in general: Nero playing the fiddle or lyre while Rome burns.
In truth, Rome carved out an empire while it was still a republic, destroying Carthage in the process. Yet that is barely remembered. Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus, the future emperor Titus and his legions destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and it was Constantine who converted to Christianity, giving us in due course a pope in Rome. These events have a wide resonance today even among those with little interest in history itself. There is some justice in all this, for though Rome’s story is not just one of emperors, the monarchy was around for a long time. The Republic lasted for four and a half centuries, but there were emperors based in Italy for five hundred years and after that for almost another thousand years in Constantinople.
In his new book, Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine, Barry Strauss tells the wider story of Rome, from the rise of Augustus to the death of Constantine in the fourth century A.D., through stories of ten emperors. These were “Rome’s most capable and successful—or, in the case of Nero, at least one of the most titillating, and even he was a great builder.” We have Augustus; his stepson Tiberius; Nero, the last of Augustus’s family to rule; then Vespasian, who won the civil war after Nero’s death; his son Titus; and no fewer than four emperors from the second century A.D.: Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and Septimius Severus. From then onwards, Strauss’s account skips ahead to Diocletian in the later third century, finishing with Constantine in the fourth.
The omission of Julius Caesar may cause surprise. As Strauss says, Caesar was not actually an emperor, although without his rise to dictatorship we would not have had Augustus, nor would the family name Caesar have become synonymous with power—and been chosen for the title of this book. More importantly, Caesar was dictator for less than five years, most of which he spent fighting the civil war away from Rome, so that he had little time to rule. He was murdered before again setting off on campaign by a conspiracy which is the subject of one of Strauss’s earlier books. Here he is mentioned only as background to Augustus, whose long reign fundamentally changed attitudes towards how the state should work. Caesar was stabbed to death by men who believed that the Republic could be revived and that the abuses of the system could and should be managed. After forty-four years of Augustus as sole ruler, no one could remember a time when Republican government had actually worked, and they simply expected a successor as emperor. Aristocrats remained nostalgic for the centuries when they had real power and political independence without ever really doing anything to revive the system. Perhaps somewhat to readers’ surprise, senators argued over what constituted a good emperor, but all seem to have believed that there must always be an emperor.
In the third century A.D., Cassius Dio declared that
Democracy, indeed, has a fair-appearing name . . . . Monarchy . . . has an unpleasant sound, but is a most practical form of government to live under. For it is easier to find a single excellent man than many of them . . . for it does not belong to the majority of men to acquire virtue. . . . Indeed, if ever there has been a prosperous democracy, it has in any case been at its best for only a brief period.
Dio was a senior senator who survived the viciously disappointing reign of Commodus, the son of the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the brutal discipline of Septimius Severus and his family. Yet none of that made him doubt the wisdom of the imperial system. It is certainly true that the people of the provinces were exploited far more ruthlessly under the Republic; emperors did not want to provoke costly rebellions, hence Tiberius’s admonishment to his provincial governors “to shear his sheep, not skin them.” The liberty for which Brutus and Cassius murdered Caesar was the freedom for the Roman elite to fight aggressive wars and squeeze every penny they could from the provinces.
Dio was a Roman citizen, a senator, a consul, and a provincial governor, but he was also from a provincial family, a Greek from a city in what is now Turkey, and probably had not the slightest trace of Roman blood. The Roman willingness to grant citizenship to subject peoples remains unique among historical empires, giving us St. Paul, a Jew from Tarsus who was also a Roman even though there is no evidence he spoke Latin, and men like Dio. Any senator would be fluently bilingual in Greek as well as Latin, a product of merged Greco-Roman culture. Over the generations more and more provincials joined Rome’s elite, while even more served the emperor in junior positions. The backgrounds of the emperors themselves reflected the changing composition of Rome’s aristocracy. Augustus came from a family just breaking into public life, Tiberius from an ancient branch of the aristocracy. Vespasian and Titus were gentry from a minor Italian town, Trajan and Hadrian came from Spain, as did some of Marcus Aurelius’s family, while Severus was from modern-day Libya, and Diocletian and Constantine were from the Balkans.
A lot changed during the course of the centuries Strauss describes, more than just the expansion of Rome’s elite. The city of Rome, and Italy itself, saw emperors less and less as time passed. Augustus was a great traveler, while in contrast Tiberius as emperor not only never went to the provinces, but also after a few years secluded himself on Capri. No other emperor was such a recluse, for this proved dangerous, leading to an abortive coup by the commander of the Praetorian Guard, whose power was based on controlling access to Tiberius. Emperors needed to be available and approachable, for much of their job consisted of hearing and responding to petitions from all over the empire. Visiting the provinces made it easier for more people to reach the emperor. Hadrian copied Augustus and spent most of his reign on the move. In one place, an old lady called out to him as he passed in a litter, and Hadrian replied that he did not have time to hear her. “Then stop being emperor” was her response, prompting the leader of Rome’s world empire to halt and listen to her appeal.
Being emperor meant hard work and long hours listening to the problems of the world—or at least those with the influence and persistence to bring them to him. This was one reason why young men like Caligula, Nero, and Commodus struggled with the role and tried to break free of its restrictions. Some of the burden could be passed down to officials, which explains why the early years of Nero’s reign were ones of overall efficiency in government, though too much delegation risked creating rivals. Augustus had relied heavily on family members to act as senior deputies, but his successors had fewer suitable relatives and rarely trusted even these. Inevitably those around the emperor could influence him. The senatorial elite expected a good emperor to come to them for advice and resented those rulers who listened to their own households instead, worst of all to their slaves, to freedmen, or to women.
One of the many strengths of Strauss’s book is the attention he pays to the role of imperial women. Roman husbands were usually much older than their wives, which meant that the mother tended to play a much more formative role in her children’s life. Mothers, wives, and lovers were far more likely to occupy the palace than emperors’ brothers, and no emperor had a living father unless he was also co-ruler. Women active in politics attracted the venomous disapproval of the aristocratic men who wrote our historical sources. The cleverest were women like Livia, the wife of Augustus, dubbed “Ulysses in a dress” by Caligula, who worked mainly behind the scenes, but was very good at getting what she wanted. Nero’s mother, Agrippina, was unabashed, probably abler than her wayward son, and was hated, at least until he had her murdered.
Sources for all of ancient history are far poorer than we would like. The introduction of imperial rule added another problem, as more key decisions were made behind closed doors by the emperor and his advisors, whoever these happened to be. So much was never widely known, and everything else carefully stage-managed. Augustus was a master publicist. His image was everywhere, but although he lived into his seventies, the face on statues, busts, paintings, and coins remained eternally young and serenely confident, in contrast to the reality of a small man with bad teeth wearing thick-soled shoes to make himself seem taller. One of the seals he used was the inscrutable sphinx, and there is a sense of a man always performing for an audience. We know more about Augustus than about most of his successors, but even so we cannot really pin the man down.
Strauss does an excellent job of steering through what is known and what we can guess about his subjects, while admitting that most of them remain enigmatic. We can sense the essential awkwardness of Tiberius or the smug self-satisfaction of Hadrian, and can at least smile at Vespasian’s sense of humor. From Marcus Aurelius we have his famous Meditations, which were never meant to be published. They discuss his doubts, pain at the loss of family, and his earnest desire to do good and not to be corrupted by power. The Meditations give a truly remarkable insight into aspects of his personality, but at the same time barely touch on most of his life.
Diocletian and Constantine are even more elusive than the rest of Strauss’s subjects, a fact that in many ways reflects the changes in how the empire worked. Augustus tried to appear as first among equals, merely the greatest servant of the state, and some of this façade was maintained by later rulers for the next two hundred years. Augustus would dine at senators’ houses, walk through the streets of Rome, and rise to greet guests while Diocletian surrounded himself with ceremony and rigid security. By the fourth century, emperors ignored the crowds, and those ushered into their presence had to prostrate themselves on the floor. If lucky, they might be allowed to kiss the hem of the emperors’ robes.
Strauss’s selection includes nine of the emperors he considers the most successful, but how is this success to be judged? Our sources were written by and intended for the elite, which inevitably means that how well an emperor treated senators determines whether or not he is recalled favorably. As Strauss notes, Nero was very popular with the urban poor and some of the less well off elsewhere until very late in his reign, even though he was hated and feared by senators. There was no legal mechanism for removing an emperor, no elections or process for impeachment, so assassination and civil war were the only options.
To some extent the limits of our surviving sources narrow the list of possible “successful” emperors down. After all, measurements of success are bound to be subjective, but Strauss’s list includes almost all of the emperors for whom it is possible to say very much at all, excluding only Antoninus Pius and arguably also Claudius, both of whom are discussed a little. Of the ten, five won power through civil war, and it is no coincidence that the last three did so. Septimius Severus and his dynasty created a generation of stability, Diocletian a little less, and Constantine about the same, but otherwise, from the third century A.D. onwards, civil war and usurpation were commonplace, rotting the fabric of the empire until it collapsed in the west.
Most emperors in those years died violent deaths, only rarely at the hands of foreign enemies. Of our ten, Nero committed suicide, while the rest died of natural causes, admittedly amid rumors of murder in a fair few cases. All, once again apart from Nero, also led armies on campaign, whether before or during their reigns, and this is no coincidence, for the Romans did not separate civil and military leadership. Imperator, the Latin word from which we get the word “emperor,” originally meant “victorious general,” and a career in public life always meant a mix of civil and military roles. In this sense, it is arguable whether or not we really can see some emperors as “soldiers,” since even they spent the bulk of their adult life away from the army.
The Romans were openly and unashamedly imperialists, their empire a product of conquest and the ruthless suppression of rebellion, and Strauss never shies away from the contradictions within their society or its more unpleasant aspects. Empire brought peace and stability, population growth and prosperity, the rule of law and the spread of Greek and Roman ideas and culture. At the same time, slavery was accepted as normal, and human beings and animals were slaughtered as entertainment. Tiberius is praised for halting the rampant expansion of Augustus’s reign, although it is arguable whether he meant this to be a permanent change or simply a pause for consolidation. Trajan was a conqueror, while Hadrian gave up some of the new conquests and concentrated on strengthening defences on the existing frontiers—most famously constructing Hadrian’s Wall in Britain.
Even the allegedly enlightened emperors were bolstered by the patina of martial power. Take Hadrian, who was fond of architecture and of winning debates with academics. When one of the latter was asked why he let the emperor get away with a demonstrably false premise, the man drily commented that you do not argue with someone who controls thirty legions. Augustus did his best to veil his true authority, but ultimately he and all his successors were military dictators, their rule resting on a monopoly of military force. Soldiers swore an oath of loyalty to the emperor, and received pay, promotion, medals, and pensions in his name, with any victory they won being credited to him, even if he was a thousand miles away. After the death of Nero, one senator commented that a secret of empire was exposed, as it was clear that emperors were made in the provinces by the legions. Septimius Severus’s last words to his sons and successors were, allegedly, “Love one another, indulge the soldiers, and despise everyone else.” He had done much to militarize the empire, and this process accelerated in the years to come, especially under Diocletian and Constantine. Strauss argues that this was necessary to strengthen an empire facing ever greater threats. That may or may not be true, but the strategy’s success was limited, for militarization of the imperial system did not stop the ongoing cycle of civil wars.
Yet successful does not mean nice, any more than great means good when it comes to judging leaders. Diocletian and Constantine were hard men whose greatest victories were won over Roman rivals. Augustus was another hard man, which was one of the reasons he conquered so much territory in order to gain glory that was clean by Roman standards. “Good” emperors made public declarations that they would never execute a senator, although only a handful managed never to break this promise. This was not always the mark of a despot, for ambition was deeply rooted in the psyche of Roman aristocrats and in Greek culture, and even a decent emperor like Marcus Aurelius still faced an attempted coup. Domitian, the second and far less popular son of Vespasian, claimed that the only way an emperor could prove that there were plots against him was to be murdered. Tiberius likened being emperor to holding a wolf by the ears.
Yet under the rule of emperors, Rome’s empire flourished for a time and ultimately collapsed in the west, and Strauss presents us with a highly readable and insightful look at some of the men who helped shape this history. Along the way he touches on many aspects of Roman life. Inevitably in a book of this size, he cannot cover everything. Emperors were not the only actors in the grand Roman drama, but they were in many ways the most important. Not everyone will agree with all of Strauss’s interpretations, although all can be confident that Strauss’s arguments are reasonable ones soundly based on the evidence; it is simply that our evidence has so many gaps in it that often we cannot know what Rome was actually like. Thankfully, Strauss does not try to force parallels with the modern world, ramming home clumsy and implausible lessons for our day. What he does instead is tell us about the people and events of this ancient empire, doing his best to bring them to life, showing how one society and one political system developed over the centuries. Ten Caesars is an excellent and eminently readable introduction to this era, but it will also reward those who already have an interest in Roman history by making them think again about the characters of these rulers and the men and women around them.
1Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine, by Barry Strauss; Simon & Schuster, 432 pages, $28.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 7, on page 10
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