As someone who likes to look for historical parallels, it’s only natural that I’d have the rash break out that I get every few years or so; a burning desire to read up a bit more on ancient Rome. No, it’s not that I think our own nation is about to fall as Rome did – far from it. What’s far more interesting to me are the times when Rome was right on the verge of terrible disaster but somehow managed to pull back – to start the games and the parties all over again. It’s that resiliency, carrying on despite having several unquestionably mad Emperors, that I find interesting.
This disease of mine usually starts with a viewing of the old PBS series “I Claudius”, which I first saw when I was about 12. This is the story of the Emperor Claudius, a man who survived to be very old when nearly everyone else in his family was poisoned, stabbed, or exiled to make way for a new generation of plotters. While most of the line of his father Drusus appears to have had mental problems, Claudius was instead physically deformed. His stutter and limp made him no threat to anyone, which is possibly why he lived. When the Emperor Caligula was killed by his own guard, the soldiers made Claudius Emperor as something of a joke. It turns out he was very wise and ruled quite well – certainly better than the rest of the inbreds had managed for a long time..
The primary source for Robert Graves’ epic work is “The Lives of the Caesars” by Suetonius Tranquillus, from around 100 AD. While a bit harder to read than the historical fiction of Graves, it has the advantage of taking us past yet another mad disaster, Nero, whose death only intensified a civil war. Rome has been burned, the population has fled, and those that remain are getting caught in the cross-fire. The leadership is changing constantly, known as the “Year of Four Emperors”. What could possibly come next?
What came next was probably the greatest emperor Rome ever had, Vespasian, who brought peace and established a new dynasty that would last for centuries.
I have a soft spot for Flavius Vespasian, the man who really turned things around. It was his common touch, including the construction of the Coliseum on the site that Nero selfishly burned for his own palace, that really made the difference. I leave this to Suetonius:
“He was unassuming and lenient from the very beginning of his reign until its end, never trying to conceal his former lowly condition, but often even parading in it. Indeed, when certain men tried to trace the origin of the Flavian family … he laughed at them for their pains.”
Without this man, we would probably not know much about Rome today. We might not use the alphabet we do, and we might not have ever developed a form of government like a Republic. Until Vespasian came along and ruled with a common touch that commanded Rome with a light hand, it looked like it was all going to fall forever into chaos.
What was it about how Vespasian ruled that made all the difference? What was it in the Roman character, at that time, that allowed them a new start so that they didn’t become part of the cycles Ibn Khaldun would later describe?
I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure yet. What I can tell you is this: every few years, I have to dig out the old texts (Josephus is next!) and see what sense I can make of it all. I’m not sure there is a lesson in it yet, but I have to look. There are so many bizarre events, and after a while I have to laugh at how dark they are (my fave being Nero’s last words, haec est fides [so this is loyalty], said after his guard stabbed him – I think it makes a great motto)..
It’s true that things went horribly wrong in Rome once in a while, but a unique blessing of history kept them going. If we’re gonna have to get lucky, I’m hoping to have at least an inkling of what kind of luck it’ll be. We’re not as horrible as Rome, which is good, but we sure love our excess about as much as they did.
Senatus Popularus Que Romanus – to the Senate and the people of Rome. Or whoever we turn out to be, that is.