James Baresel on the depravity and barbarism of the emperors
By Barry Strauss
Simon and Schuster, 432pp, £20/$28
One is naturally disposed to be defensive of “Western civilisation”, in part because the term is often used as a euphemism for civilisations influenced by Christianity, in part because such alternatives as Sharia law are unappealing, and partly because of increasing hostility to the social and cultural heritage of ethnically European peoples. But some caution is needed. Disturbing as it might be to see classical education rejected in favour of the study of such fads as “postcolonialism”, it does no good to pretend that the classical world didn’t leave a bit to be desired.
Ten Caesars, subtitled Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine, gives to its reader a good idea of just how horrid the classical world was even at its best. Pagan Rome was then in its most fully developed form. Roman literature’s Golden Age largely coincided with the lifetime of the man who would become Augustus; it was then followed by its Silver Age, and finally by the merging of Roman and Greek culture into as close a unity as they were ever to achieve.
By the standards of the time (in fact, by the standards of most places during most historical epochs) it was a period of remarkable internal stability and border security – one which saw non-Christian classical culture attain its longest period of hegemony. Yet despite such accomplishments and having before its eyes the greatest moral examples the pagan world would ever produce, Roman society remained utterly barbaric and immoral.
Persecution of Christians is only the most obvious and egregious example of Roman brutality, one more likely to be exaggerated than overlooked. Anyone who found themselves on the wrong side of those with the ability to exercise power could end up tortured and killed, regardless of the theoretical rights of Roman citizens or their own putative authority. Even the “office” of emperor represented a triumph of practical power over theoretical law, and not because the empire was established through illegal means.
As far as legal technicalities were concerned, the establishment of the empire changed relatively little, the senate officially retaining the bulk of its previous authority. Methods of transferring the position of emperor were as informal as the imperial position itself. When able to do so, emperors would name their own successors, typically adopting men to whom they also claimed some other form of family relationship – often one based on politically motivated divorces and new unions. One emperor, Septimus Severus, even declared himself the adopted son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius more than a century after the latter’s death.
The emperors’ ability to continue in power required a careful balancing act. Those most successful in maintaining their positions allowed possible rivals power great enough to give satisfaction and circumscribed enough to limit the base from which rebellions and coups could be launched. Those who were not ruthless in “eliminating” their enemies could find themselves dead; those who were too aggressive in doing so could push their enemies into striking first.
Strauss’s book often reads more like an account of battles for control of a mafia than a work about the politics of a viable state. The remarkable thing is not how many emperors met violent ends but how many died of natural causes.
The author’s articulation of the negative aspects of Roman society is not, however, based on the approach of those modern debunking authors who repeat as fact every rumour of misbehaviour that was current in their subjects’ lifetimes, often adding new speculations based on the most sordid and corrupt possibilities.
Strauss does the opposite, calling attention to allegations that have only a dubious basis in fact. This is particularly so in the case of accusations against highly placed women – whose immense power behind the scenes Strauss frequently emphasises.
Ten Caesars concludes, of course, with the emperor who finally granted freedom of religion to Christians and put Rome on the path to a more humane way of life. With its typical balance, the book shows that Constantine both came to power through typical Roman thuggery and (despite his dubious orthodoxy) was also ultimately sincere in his personal and political decisions. These decisions put him at major political risk.
Serious efforts to investigate and punish Christians had, until then, been somewhat sporadic and restricted to particular regions. Turning a blind eye to Christians had not been uncommon. But formal authorisation of Christianity created a strong and potentially violent party of opposition.
Strauss does not, however, make the mistake of those who would blame the resulting division for the Roman Empire’s fall. The reasons for that occurrence are to be found elsewhere.